Tag Archives: Code of the Gentoos Law

The Question of Hindu, Hinduism et cetera – Part Two

Continued From Part One

For my learned friend Prof. Dr. DMR Sekhar

As observed by the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the case of  ‘Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal’ (1995) the word ‘Hindu’ derived from the name of the river Sindhu originally referred to the region along the river Sindhu (now called the Indus) as also the people residing in the Sindhu region.

It is explained that Persia, in the ancient times, was the vital link between India and the Greeks of Asia Minor. In the Avesta of Zoroaster, what we today call as India is named as Hapta Hendu,   the Avesthan for the Vedic Sapta Sindhavah – the Land of Seven Rivers, that is, the five rivers of the Punjab along with the Sarasvati (a river which has since disappeared) and the Indus. The word ‘Sindhu’ not only referred to the river system but to the adjoining areas as well.

And again, by about 516 B.C.E, Darius son of Hystaspes annexed the Indus valley and formed the twentieth satrapy of the Persian Empire. The twentieth Satrapy was the richest and the most populous Satrapy of the Persian Empire. The inscription at Nakshi–e-Rustam (486.BCE) refers to the tributes paid to Darius by Hidush and other vassals; such as Ionians, Spartans, Bactrians, Parthians, and Medes. 

The name of Sindhu reached the Greeks in its Persian form Hindu (because of the Persian etymology wherein every initial ‘S’ is represented by ‘Ha’).The Persian term Hindu became the Greek Indos / (plural indoi) since the Greeks could not pronounce ‘Ha’ and had no proper ’U’. The Indos, in due course, acquired its Latin form – India. Had the Sanskrit word Sindhu reached the Greeks directly, they might perhaps have pronounced it as Sindus or Sindia.

All this was to explain that the word ‘Hindu’ originally referred to the river system; and to the adjoining areas; as also to the people residing in that region. The term was employed to denote regional and cultural affiliation; but, not a religious identity.


In the ancient times the concept a distinct ‘religion’ as opposed to other ‘religions’ did not seem to exist. The Rig-Veda or the Upanishads or even the Buddha do not refer to a ‘religion’ or speak in ‘religious terms’. Even the later texts such as the Arthashatra of Kautilya or the Indica Megasthanese  do not mention a religion per se that existed in India of their times.

[ It is said; in the whole of Sanskrit lexicon there is no term equivalent to what we now call as ‘religion’]

Even otherwise, what has now come to be categorized as ‘Hinduism ‘does not satisfy or fall within the accepted definition of a ‘religion’?

For instance; it has no Prophet or a Originator; its origin cannot be pinpointed to a time or place;  it has no single source-text or the Holy Book; it is not identified with a particular symbol or an emblem; it does not prescribe (injunctions or list of Do-s – thou shalt) or proscribe (prohibitions or list of don’t-s- Thou shalt not) a set of beliefs or rules of conduct;  it does not lay down a particular system of faith , dogma or worship ;  there is no single Authority to issue mandates or edicts (Fatwa)  for regulating or governing religious faith  of its people; one cannot be excommunicated from its fold ; and by the same token one cannot m strictly speaking , converted to its faith; in fact it has no global ambition, intending to conquer the world;  those within it have the absolute freedom to accept/reject/ abuse any or   all of the gods ;  any or all of the texts; one can accept or reject a superhuman controlling power according ones will;  one can observe the time-honoured accepted customs , ceremonies and rituals or reject any or all of it with impunity and still profess to be a ‘Hindu’; and so on…

Further; what is now called Hinduism was not made; but, it has grown over the centuries. And during its long and circuitous route, in its metamorphosis,   it has imbibed within it several tribal cultures  by absorbing, transforming and reforming various cult and tribal beliefs and practices, many of which were vague and amorphous,  ranging from sublime to grotesque . The Hinduism, as practiced today, is a continuing amalgam of hundreds of tribal cultures.  The Hindu culture, philosophy and rituals are greatly enriched by such countless tribal cultures. But, all the while it did retain the ancient concept of an all-pervading, Universal entity from which everything emanates and into which everything eventually returns. Some describe Hinduism as an inverted tree or a jungle; but not a strictly planned structural building.

Thus what has come to be regarded as Hinduism is a peculiar, open-ended system that rejects all sorts of restrictions and defies a specific definition. That perhaps is the reason why the Supreme Court observed:  ‘Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such’.

The ‘Hindu’ view of life accepts – rather celebrates the pluralistic nature Truth or Reality, which cannot be , dogmatically, restricted or diminished to a particular single position. The ‘Hindu’ traditions have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. It believes that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; and, it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika). It also marks the tendency to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason.

Then the Question is: how did such an open concept that vaguely meant a geographical or a cultural association was brought down and restricted to mean a particular religious group as distinct from other such rival groups or sects.



Catherine A. Robinson, a Professor on the Study of Religions at the Bath Spa University in the introduction to her celebrated Book Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition investigates and  discusses , in fair detail , the course of  ‘the changing meaning of ‘Hindu’ whereby an original ethnic and cultural meaning was much later superseded by a religious meaning’. Much of what follows hereunder is based on her work.

The very notion of religion (dian definiri religio), commonly translated as ‘a feeling of absolute dependence’,’ to tie or bind’, is primarily a Western concern. It is the product of the dominant Western religious mode; the theistic inheritance from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The basic structure of such theism is essentially a distinction between a transcendent deity and all else; between the creator and his creation; between God and man.

 [On October 25, 2016, a Seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India  headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur which had taken  up   a review of the judgement handed down by its Three-judge Bench  in 1995, among other things , observed:

“It is difficult to define religion. There will be no end to this”. ]


According to Ms. Robinson: ‘Hindu’ did not, originally, designate religious significance or affiliation; nor did it distinguish among affiliations to what are now regarded as different ‘religions’. ‘Hinduism’, she says, is to be understood as a modern Western concept adopted and adapted by ‘Hindus’. And,  it is , therefore, important to differentiate between ‘Hinduism’ as a contemporary phenomenon with ideological power and practical implications and the historical process that produced it, imbuing it with an appropriate past and aura of antiquity.

The change in the meaning of ‘Hindu’ from the ethnic and cultural to the religious occurred in two important phases during which ‘Hindu’ was defined negatively through the exclusion of Muslims ; and,  then  during the Western period , positively through the association of those identified as ‘Hindu’ with a single unified ‘religion’.

In the medieval period, in Islamic usage, ‘Hindu’ tended to denote an Indian who was not a Muslim. It was a negative criterion – non-adherence to Islam; as also a demarcation of the indigenous inhabitants from the foreign or invading populace in terms of ethnic, cultural or even religious distinctions. And later, a ’Hindu’ came to mean one who was not affiliated to any of the identifiable cults, beliefs and practices prevalent among the indigenous population.

In the modern period, as per the Western usage, initially, and in general, ‘Hindu’ signified   an ethnic and cultural identity associated with the indigenous civilization of India. Later,   ‘Hindu’, in particular, tended to denote an Indian who was neither a Muslim nor a member of another sect recognized as a ‘religion’

Let’s look at these phases in a little more detail.


Dr. Dileep Karanth, in his article ‘The Unity of India’ (Journal of the Indian History and Culture Society; 2006-7) explains:

According to Dr. D.P. Singhal (India and World Civilization, Rupa & Co., 1993), the earliest mention of India in Chinese chronicles occurs in the report of an envoy from the Chinese court to Bactriana. Here, India was referred to as Shen-tu.  Dr. Singhal explains that the term Shen-tu can be philologically related to the word Sindhu (Indus).’

He says; the old Chinese name for India Shên-tu had been replaced by Yin-tu by the time Yuan-Chwang (602-664 CE), a Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler who traveled across India for 17 years,  was visiting; and, it has remained that ever since.

In Chinese , ‘Hs’ pronounced ‘sh’, often represent foreign H. That is, the word ‘Shen-tu’ in Chinese may just be ‘Hindu’ transcribed.

And when Yuan-Chwang came looking for ‘Shen-tu’, he heard a word ‘Indu/Yin-tu’, which had become current in the borderlands of India; and, he began to make a note of it. Yuan-Chwang proposed an etymology for the name ‘Yin-tu’. India, he said, is named ‘Yin-tu, because, like the moon, its wise and holy men shed light even after the sun of the Buddha had set. (Incidentally, Indu, in Sanskrit means moon; and that might be reason why the Chinese chronicles explicitly use the pictogram for the moon to represent India.)

It is interesting to note that ‘Indu’ in Sanskrit could well be changed to ‘Hindu’ in Old Persian. The term ‘Hindu’ has been current among Greeks, Persians, and Chinese quite independently of the Arabs or the Muslims. It is widely believed that the term itself is the creation of foreign peoples (even if the idea is not).


Yuan-Chwang used the term Yin-tu to apply to the whole of the Indian subcontinent, inclusive of the Indo-Gangetic plain, Magadha or Kashmir and the southern peninsula. Yuan-Chwang also spoke of ‘Indian’ lands which were then under Persian rule. That is, Yuan Chwang could tell that a province was ‘Indian’ even if it happened to be under foreign rule. Yin-tu did not mean a religion.

The idea of an India has existed since classical times – since time immemorial, some would say. It has been celebrated in the classical literature of India, even though the name ‘India’ was not used. The civilizations that came in contact with classical India did perceive the very diverse peoples of the land as somehow ‘One’. And the term Hindu was not used to signify a religion.

The notion of an India thus has deep roots; and yet, its expressions at the surface may have changed with the times. The concept of India and Indian subcontinent is now broad enough to embrace all peoples whose homelands are contiguous to India, and who choose to celebrate the notion of an India.


Al-Biruni (973-1048) a Muslim scholar of Iranian descent is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era, who distinguished himself as a historian and versatile linguist,.  He arrived in India during 1017; and spent here number of years learning the local history, culture and languages. He also collected books on Indian philosophies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and art, as practiced in 11th century India. During his stay, it is said, he learnt Sanskrit, befriended number of Indian scholars, and had discussions on verities of subjects.

Al-Biruni in his book Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India) , wrote about his impressions on almost every aspect of life in the India of his times (early 11th -century) as also about its history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics.

He observed: ‘the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect’ they totally differ from us in religion; alongside in general cultural practices, language and custom’. The Hindu, in his work, generally denoted non-Muslims. And his description of the ‘Hindu’ was not particularly in terms of ‘religion’. It was meant to highlight the differences in the culture; rather than in religious beliefs and practices.

And within the hierarchy of ‘religions,  as derived  from the criteria that were close to Islam, those religious groups without a revealed book or fixed laws were  ranked  lowest.

The later medieval Muslim scholars adopted a similar approach. They too referred to the whole of the non-Muslim population as the Hindu; and, they did not seem to be aware of the diverse sects and cults within it or outside of it.

Accordingly, the medieval Islamic view of ‘Hindu’ was primarily to designate indigenous non-Muslim population and their way of life.


Medieval Church

 It is said; according to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium). It is explained; the concept of ‘heathen’ was derived from such Christian-world view; and its fourfold classification.

By about the sixteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were categorized by the Church and by the Europeans, in general, under lexgentilium- heathens and idolaters. And, till about the Eighteenth Century, the term Gentile, Gentio or heathen was applied to identify the Hindus and to distinguish them from the Moors (Muslims) of India.


The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the West coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens. It is said; the Portuguese word ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native. 


Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.

East India House London painted by Thomas Malton in c.1800

[ Please also see India under British rule from the foundation of the East India Company by By James Talboys Wheeler (1824-1897),Published by Macmillan and Co., London – 1886

The administration of the East India Company – A history of Indian progress– by Sir John William Kaye (1814-1876) -Published by Richard Bentley, London – 1853

The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company- Being curious reminiscences during the rule of the East India Company from 1600-1858, complied from newspapers and other publications –  by W.H.Carey -1882 ]

calcutta writers building 1882

East India Company and the Code of the Gentoos Law

The English East India Company was founded in 1600 as a private joint-stock corporation under a royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I 31.12.1600. And, that gave the Company a monopoly over trade with India, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.

 It was originally known as Governor And Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies .The first Governor was Thomas Smith; and, the  Groups were known as ”Merchant Adventurers.

Hawkins was given 400 Manasabs by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. In 1615, James I sent his Ambassador Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of Jahangir.

Sir Thomas Roe in the Court of Jahangir

Initially , they started factory at Surat; in 1633 at Musulipattam . Later, they got Madras in 1639 from Raja of Chandragiri ;  Fort St George was constructed in 1640 ; and, a factory was opened at Bangalore in 1642.

In 1661, the port region of Bombay was received as royal dowry from Portuguese for marrying their Princess Catherine Braganza with Charles II. The Company got it from the King in 1668 for an annual rent of 10 pounds.

In 1715, three villages Sutanati, Kalikota and Govindpur got by Hamilton gained firman in 1717, called magna-carta of the company

The company was governed in London by 24 directors, elected by its shareholders (known collectively as the Court of Proprietors). Profits from its trade were distributed in an annual dividend that varied during 1711–55 at between 8 and 10 percent.

The company’s trading business was carried on overseas by its covenanted “servants,” young boys nominated by the directors usually at the age of 15. Servant salaries were low (in the mid-18th century a company writer made £5 per year), and it was understood they would support themselves by private trade.

Between 1773 and 1833 a series of charter revisions increased parliamentary supervision over company affairs and weakened the company’s monopoly over Asian trade. In the Act of 1833 the East India Company lost its monopoly over trade entirely, ceasing to exist as a commercial agent and remaining only as an administrative shell through which Parliament governed Indian territories.

[Source : Modern India history modern India history at a glance general studies for prelims advent of the Europeans by Kritarth Srivatsava.]

East India company 1700

The Coat of Arms of the British East India Company, with their slogan “Auspicio Regis Et Senatus Anglia,” Latin for “By the authority of the King and Parliament of England.”

In 1785 the East India Company directors sent Charles Cornwallis(1738–1805) to India as governor-general, an appointment Cornwallis held until 1793. Lord Cornwallis, who had just returned from America, where he presided over the surrender of British forces at Yorktown (1781), had a reputation for uncompromising rectitude. He was sent to India to reform the company’s India operations. His wide-ranging reforms were later collected into the Code of Forty-eight Regulations (the Cornwallis Code).

Cornwallis barred Indian civilians from company employment at the higher ranks . And, he also restricted the Sepoys (Indian soldiers) from rising to commissioned status in the British army. He replaced regional Indian judges with provincial courts run by British judges. Beginning with Cornwallis, the “Collector” became the company official in charge of revenue assessments, tax collection, and (after 1817) judicial functions at the district level. 

Cornwallis’s most dramatic reform, however, was the “permanent settlement” of Bengal, which gave landownership to Bengali zamindars in perpetuity—or for as long as they were able to pay the company (later the Crown) the yearly taxes due on their estates. The settlement’s disadvantages became clear almost immediately, as several years of bad crops forced new zamindars to transfer their rights to Calcutta moneylenders. The Bengal model was abandoned in most 19th-century land settlements, in part because by then the government’s greater dependence on land revenues made officials unwilling to fix them in perpetuity. (Source)

Richard Colley Wellesley (1760–1842) , sent to India in 1798, ensured uncontested British dominance in India; and, augmented the imperial grandeur of Company rule by building, at great cost, a new Government House in Calcutta. He is reported to have remarked: “I wish India to be ruled from a palace, not from a counting house; with the ideas of a Prince, not with those of a retail-dealer in muslins and indigo”

Calcutta Government House from the Eastward 1819. Engraved by R Havell Jr

[The East India Company directors in London only learned about the building (and its enormous cost), only in 1804. The building’s architect was Charles Wyatt (1759–1819); and, the design was modelled on a Derbyshire English manor, Kedleston Hall, built in the 1760s.

This drawing – a view of Government House, from the Eastward-  is by James Baillie Fraser, ca. 1819. (courtesy of Judith E. Walsh)]


With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters.

warren hastings Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’. His immediate object thereafter was to devise an arrangement to dispense law/justice to the Indian litigants in ways that are as close as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious. But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

By August 1772, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos shall be invariably adhered to’.

[Pitt’s India Act 1784 or the East India Company Act 1784 was passed in the British Parliament to rectify the defects of the Regulating Act 1773. It resulted in dual control or joint government in India by Crown in Great Britain and the British East India Company, with crown having ultimate authority. The relationship between company and crown established by this act kept changing with time until the Government of India Act 1858 provided for liquidation of the British East India Company; and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.

Sir John R. Seeley, the 19th-century British historian, famously remarked that “the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.”

The greatest single force in the expansion of that empire was the East India Company. Although in theory dedicated to trading by sea, the company gradually acquired vast areas of territory in Asia and found itself the ruler of a sixth of humanity.

After its somewhat inglorious demise following the Indian Mutiny, the Company was abolished in 1858. Its grandiose headquarters at East India House in the City of London were  later demolished in 1863

The formal ceremony of  handing over the British Crown from the East India Company to Her Majesty Queen Victoria was held at Calcutta 

handing over british crown

On November 1, 1858, at a grand Durbar  held at Allahabad, Lord Canning released the royal proclamation which announced that the Queen had assumed the governance of India.

When, by the blessing of Providence, internal tranquillity shall be restored, it is our earnest desire to stimulate the peaceful industry of India, to promote works of public utility and improvement, and to administer its government for the benefit of all our subjects resident therein. In their prosperity will be our strength, in their contentment our security, and in their gratitude our best reward – Proclamation of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, 1858

Under the provisions of the  Royal Titles Act 1876 , Queen  Victoria assumed  the title “Empress of India” , effective from 1 May 1876.. The new title was proclaimed at the Delhi Durbar of 1 January 1877 ]


Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the British as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

[The Gentoo Code is a legal code or a digest of Hindu law on contracts and successions, compiled by a set of  by Brahmin scholars headed by Pandit  Jagannath Tarkapanchanan . In its Sanskrit version , it was titled as Vivādāravasetu.   It was first translated into Persian, which was official language of that time. And, later it was translated from Persian into English by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian working for the East India Company, for the use in courts of the East India Company as ‘A code of Gentoo laws’.  

The translation was funded and encouraged by Warren Hastings as a method of increasing colonial hold over the Indies. It was printed privately by the East India Company in London in 1776 under the title A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pundits. Copies were not put on sale; but, the Company did distribute them. In 1777 a pirate  edition was printed; and, in 1781 a second edition appeared. Translations into French and German were published in 1778.]

gentoos code

The English version A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundit was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws(pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And, their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency; and, it largely meant ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

It was only later that ‘Hinduism’ came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics; and, having an assortment of beliefs.


Administration of Temples and religious institutions

The intervention and supervision by the British over the implementation of the Hindu Personal Law led to their gaining direct and indirect control over administration of religious institutions, deciding on religious matters ; as also to officially categorize  issues and classify them as ‘religious’ or secular.

[With the advent of the British and their judicial system, an increasing number of litigations were brought before the Courts on all sorts of secular and religious matters, including petty ones. The better known among the religious issue, though a petty one, was Vadakalai Vs Thenkalai namam dispute of 1776 concerning the shape of the namam to be placed on the elephant at the Kanchipuram temple; and, the appeal filed thereafter in 1795. Baron Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire, who was then the Governor of Madras (1794- 1798), advised the warring Sivaishnavas:

“The Board of Directors of the Company do not think it is advisable to interfere in the religious disputes of the natives, lest by giving a decision on grounds of which they are not certain, it might become the cause of dissentions serious in their consequences to the peace of the inhabitants”.

Despite Governor Hobart’s sensible advice, disputes on the namam issues continued to be brought before the Courts. (Source: Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India, Volume 1; edited by S. Muthiah; pages 100 – 101)]


As the British began defeating the local Kings and gaining control over their territories, they naturally stepped into the shoes of the erstwhile rulers; and inherited the special privileges they were entitled to. 

In the olden days, the King as the ruler of the state exercised authority and also assumed responsibility of protecting temples. He was accorded special regard and honors at the temples. The East India Company, as the rulers, too had to maintain such relations with the temples.  In the process, the British gained control over the management and administration of the temples.

But some modifications in the relations between the ruler and the temple became inevitable under the Company rule.

In that context, the Madras Endowments and Escheats* Act of 1817 (particularly Regulation VII) came into force. Under this Regulation, the Madras government enabled itself to administer all the religious institutions in the Presidency. Apart from overseeing the temple administration, maintenance of its buildings and management of its finances, the British also had a say in ritual and worship activities.

[*Escheats – Where a person dies intestate , without leaving a will, and without leaving legal heirs, all his property shall be escheat ; and, shall belong to the Government.]

The involvement of the East India Company in temple activities was viewed by the   British public opinion, back at Home,   as supporting native heathen religion. The Anti-Idolatry Connection League (AICL) protested against such anti-Christian activities.  East Indian Company came under heavy criticism for adopting and supporting a non-Christian creed.

The connections between of the Company with religious institutions in India also became a matter of dispute between  politicians  and the high officials of the Company in England on the one side;  and administrators of the East India Company in India on the other side.  Whereas the latter justified the support of the religious institutions like the temples with pragmatic political arguments…the former strongly opposed these links with moral and Christian missionary arguments and condemned it as state sanction of idolatry. 

On August 8, 1838, the Court of Directors transmitted the following instruction:

We more particularly desire that the management of all temples and other places of religious resort, together with the revenues derived therefrom, be resigned into the hands of the natives; and that the interference of the public authorities in the religious ceremonies of the people be regulated by the instructions conveyed in the 62nd paragraph of our dispatch of 20th February, 1833.

The Board of Control, Sir John Hobhouse had to give an undertaking to the House of Commons, in early August 1838, that the Government would take urgent action. 

The new policy statement also included a declaration of “withdrawal” from the management of Hindu religious institutions:

In all matters relating to their temples, their worship, their festivals, their religious practices, their ceremonial observances, our native subjects [shall] be left entirely to themselves.

Thereafter, in 1843`, the Madras Government of the East India Company finally bowed to the pressure from the British at home ; and ended its participation in the ritual activities of the temples , while retaining its control of the religious endowments. And, again in 1863, the power over endowments was also given up.

[The case on the point was that of the celebrated temple atop the Tirumala Hills.

Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao in his very well researched work The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati (Surama Prakashana – 2011) while chronicling the history and traditions of the Tirupathi-Tirumala Temple , spread over long centuries, makes a mention of the involvement of the East India Company in its management and administration.

The East India Company was in direct control of the Tirumala temple , its management, administration and its finances for about forty long years, from 1801 to 1841.

After the defeat of Tippu Sultan (1799) almost the entire South India came under British control. As regards the Arcot region which fell within the Madras presidency, the British gained control over the territory in a rather contrived manner.

After the death Chand Sahib, the then Nawab of Arcot, the British installed Md. Ali Khan Wallajah (1717 –1795) as the next Nawab of Arcot, during 1760. But, they demanded a price: Wallajah and his successors should serve the British as vassals; and that British would be paid certain amount of money for their efforts- ( for services earned with blood and presence, and that at the risk of losing our trade on the Coromandel coast).

Later, again, in 1780, the Nawab had to seek help from the British in defending his territory from attacks carried out by Hyder Ali of Mysore. The British East India Company agreed to provide the Nawab, for his safety, ten battalions of its Army stationed at Madras. For its services and also as the Royalty, the Company demanded, as its price, 400,000 pagodas (about £160,000) per annum.

Since Nawab Wallajah was unable to come up with the money demanded, he ran into enormous debts to the British. The Nawab had to borrow very heavily East India Company as also from financiers in England

Thereafter, an arrangement was devised through which the British would be able to recover their dues. Under that arrangement, Nawabs of Arcot assigned to the East India Company the revenues of the temples in their territory, including that of the temple at Tirupathi, to enable the Company to recoup the expenditure it incurred in safeguarding the territory of the Nawabs of Arcot, and also to recover the amounts that were promised to them, earlier, by Md. Ali Khan Wallajah for installing him as the Nawab.

The first Collector of Chengalpattu, Lionel Place, noted in his Report of 1799 that, soon after he became the Collector, he took over the ‘management of the funds of all the celebrated pagodas’ into his own hands and allotted the expanses of the temples for their festivals and maintenance.

And, by 1801, the British East India Company deposed the Nawabs of Arcot and annexed their territory. Thus, in 1801, the East India Company stepped into the shoes of the Nawab of Arcot as the De Jure ruler of the territory; and took direct control of the Tirupathi-Tirumala temple for the sake of garnering income of the temple. The object of the Company in taking over Tirupati temples was to generate fixed revenue, by organising its working, through systematic administration, and by preventing misappropriation and pilferage of temple funds.

In 1803, the then Collector of the Chittoor Mr. Sutton, sent a report to the Board of Revenues of the Company detailing the full account of the Temple, together with the schedules, pujas, expenses, and extent of lands held by the temple etc., This report came to be known as Statton’s Report on the Tirupati Pagoda; and, formed the basis on which the Company controlled the temple till 1821.

(According to the Report , the temple owned 187 villages of which 40 belonged to the various temple functionaries and 124 were under the management of palayakkarars )


In the meantime:

The East India Company , soon after its conquest of the Mysore region had appointed two experienced and well reputed Surveyors: Francis Buchanan  for the Mysore region; and, Colin Mackenzie for the Southern India. They worked together briefly during the survey of Mysore in the early 1800s. Both men were recognized and highly well regarded for their  professional approach, prolific and authentic output.

Colin Mackenzie, who arrived in India in 1783, began his career in the Madras Engineers;  and by 1816, he was appointed India’s First Surveyor General. As soon as he took charge of the Southern India, he began collecting , collating data from major survey investigations and also the related drawings.

The earliest Mackenzie drawings were by himself. and, a majority of the other drawings created during his four-decade career were by trained military surveyors,  who were mostly European. However, Mackenzie also collected paintings by Indian artists.

Mackenzie’s survey work also extended into areas that were not under East India Company control, but were considered potentially valuable to the Company. One such area was Tirupati. Company’s interest was prompted by a report compiled , during 1803, by the British Collector Mr. Sutton at Chittoor, on the Sri Ventakeshvara Temple, a heavily endowed pilgrimage site , with a considerable amount of revenue.

Since Tirupati was a Brahmin controlled area, Mackenzie thought it prudent not to visit the area or to send a survey team. He, therefore, asked one of his Brahmin assistants, Subha Rao, to visit the Sri Venkatesvara Temple in 1804; and, to produce a report, along with accounts of the hills, roads and buildings at the site etc.

Perhaps to supplement this account, Mackenzie collected a drawing of the Sri Venkatesvara Temple, and the surrounding area, as made by a local Tamil or Telugu artist.

The picture that was  produced , in 1804, is in a typical South Indian, Company School style, showing the artist’s use of multiple point perspective, so that all the important factors of the temple and its surrounding landscape, as they would be viewed by a pilgrim visiting the site, were taken into account, including the steep stairs that the pilgrims traveled along, and the forests surrounding the site, teeming with wild animals.

Tirupathi drawing 1804

This picture, it is said, might have been the closest Mackenzie could get to survey the site. Mackenzie presented the Tirupati drawings, in around 1815, to his colleague,  Sir Thomas Strange, the Chief Justice at Madras from 1801 to 1817. It is now housed in the British Library , London. 

[ I acknowledge with thanks , the source : Indian ‘Company School’ Art from 1780 to 1820: Collecting Versus Documenting’ by  Jennifer Howes ]


Between 1805-16, many instances of misappropriation and misuse of temple-funds were brought to the notice of the Company. Thereafter, the British East India Company passed the Regulation VII of 1817 to check such abuses. That paved way for the Company to interfere in almost every aspect of the Temple administration.

And again during 1821, Col. Bruce the then Commissioner of the Chittoor District came up with a code of rules for  guidance and conduct in the management and administration of the Tirumala Temple. His code which came to known as Bruce Code  , was said to be in use till   the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 came into force.

The Bruce’s Code of 1821, formed in terms of regulation seven of the Madras Regulation Act 1817, was essentially a set of rules for the management and administration of temples at Tirupathi and Tirumala.  These were  well-defined rules formulated as a code having Forty-two provisions to guide the administration of temples of Tirumala and Tirupati on the basis of customs and previous usages , (including payment of salaries to staff ) without , however, interfering in its  day-to-day affairs. It also prescribed a Questioner (Saval-Javab- Patti) and time-table and regimen for conduct worship and other services for each day of the year.

Under the recommendations of the Bruce Code, a District level official working under the Revenue Board of the Company was appointed to look after the income, expenditure, administration and management of the temple on behalf of the Company.  He was assisted by a Tahsildar, Siristedar and four clerks. It is said; the annual income from the Tirumala temple  which in 1749 was Rs.2.50 lakhs  was increased to more than Rs.3.50 lakhs in 1822; and the  the expenses in 1822 amounted to  about Rs.0.30 lakhs.

The protocol for the entry of the pilgrims as also for collection of offerings and accounting was also laid down :

Passing through the Bagalu vakili or silver porch the pilgrims are admitted into a rather confined part and are introduced to the God in front of whom are two vessels, one called the Gangalam or vase, the other Kopra or large cup and into these things the votaries drop their respective offerings and making their obeisance pass through another door. At the close of the day, the guards, both peons and sepoys round these vessels are searched. Without examination of any sort offerings are thrown into bags and are sealed…after which the bag is sent down to the cutcherry below the hill Govindarauz pettai. At the end of the month, these bags are transmitted to our cutcherry… and there they are opened, sorted, valued and finally sold at auction. However during the Brahmotsavam either the collector or a subordinate must be on the spot due to the value of the offerings…

The East India Company was in direct charge of the Tirumala Temple until 1841, when its Court of Directors in England strongly resented “the participation of the Company’s officers and men in the idolatry conducted in Hindu temples by reason of its management of these religious institutions and ordered its relinquishment of their administration of religious endowments”.

Thereafter, in 1843, the East India Company decided to move away from direct involvement in temple administration; but, to ‘outsource’ the Temple –administration by introducing the system of appointing a Mahant. Under that system, the Mahant would administer the Temple on behalf of the Company; and would remit to the Company a certain specified amount, regularly each year.

The first of such Agent appointed in 1843 was a Mutt named Hathiramjee Mutt, belonging to the   Vaishnava Ghosai tradition of North India. The first Mahant so appointed by Hathiramjee Mutt was Seva Das (1839-1860). He was succeeded by Mahant Dharma Das (1860-1870). During their tenure, many temples atop the Hill affiliated to the main temple of Tirumala were renovated; and the restoration and improvement of the temple-tank was also undertaken (1846).

The Mahant system was in existence until the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 was enacted. That Act was replaced by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1951.]

But, withdrawal of the Company from the direct involvement in the administration of the temples did not seem to matter much, because by 1863 all the ‘Hindu’ religious institutions had been brought under the control of the East India Company. And the Government had to continue to be involved in litigations concerning the temple properties, which by- the-way, produced body of case laws based. And, the Government had to bring into force additional legislative provisions to govern the temples more effectively.

Such legislative measures were intended to take care of varieties of issues and problems not only in the day-to-day administration but also on matters impinging upon the control and ownership of the temples. For instance; the rules specified the conditions under which the Government could take control over the temple; the extent of such control; measures to combat pressure-groups that posed threats to the temple; as also the tactics of the vested interests to influence the direction of the Government policy etc.

It was during the course of such measures and steps taken by the British in the administration of ‘Hindu religious institutions’, the concept and identity of ‘Hinduism’ as a legal entity and a public cause took concrete shape.  Thus, ‘Hinduism’ which till then was rather amorphous, began to gain a structure as litigation after litigation  were brought before the courts.  The events that followed advanced the process.


The Census of 1871

But, it was the Census of the 1871 that formally, officially and legally categorized Hinduism as a religion.

The 1871 census, the first comprehensive   census to be conducted on All-India basis, set out to gather data on religion in order to analyze and interpret data categorized under various heads. Apart from supplying factual information to the government, the Census helped in objectifying   the concepts used to compile the data collected. As a result, these concepts – one of which was the religion – acquired a new reality and relevance beyond the census figures and bureaucratic reports.

Not only did the Census reports accord increasing importance to ‘religion’ both as a subject in its own right and in relation to other subjects, but also as a conceptualization of ‘religion’ in terms of community, membership of which could be established by reference to certain criteria , and conduct ; and , hence compared with membership of such other communities .

The inclusion of religion and the role assigned to it posed a problem to the enumerators and analysts when it came to identifying ‘Hindus’ and hence ‘Hinduism’. In order to avoid complicated tabulations, the enumerators adopted a short method or a thumb rule. They went by the rule that anyone who was unable to identify himself with a known sect was to be classified as a ‘Hindu’. This was also the method adopted for tabulating most of the tribal people, nomads and low caste

And that brought focus on the contentious question of determining who was a ‘Hindu. It also went into exercise of classifying religious movements as “Hindu’ or; non-Hindu’.

While enumerating ‘Hindus’ , the Census made judgements about the limits of ‘Hinduism’ that in turn became focus of controversy , thereby establishing how official use of certain categories to classify ‘religion’ promoted the reification of ‘Hinduism’, which is rendering the complex idea of Hinduism into something recognizable and easier to identify.

Thus, the British imperialism played a key role in the concretisation of ‘Hinduism’ as an identifiable religion. This led to transformation of an abstract idea into a practical ‘religion’ distinct from other religions.


Divide and Rule

At times, the cultural and linguistic differences among the local populations were exploited by the British to accentuate the ‘Hindu’ divide.

For instance; the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh was a large and heterogeneous territorial unit of British India. The rural areas, in general, were dominated by Hindu folk traditions. The fairly large Muslim minority of the United Provinces (about 17 per cent of the population) was mostly settled in the towns (about 44 per cent of the urban population).

The differences between the two were reflected in their language and literature: Urdu, the lingua franca of the Mughal empire, was associated with urban Muslim culture; while, Hindi and its many dialects was the idiom of the rural Hindus.

Movements such as that for the recognition of Hindi in Devanagari script (i.e. the Sanskrit alphabet) as an official language in the Urdu-dominated courts of law (where proceedings were recorded in Persian characters), as well as campaigns for the protection of the sacred cow from the Muslim butcher, merged into a general stream of Hindu nationalism in the late nineteenth century.

The British decision to replace the use of Persian in 1842 for government employment and as the language of Courts of Law caused deep anxiety among Muslims of the sub-continent. This development greatly alarmed the Muslims and gave rise to communal conflicts.

The British had certainly not created these conflicts, but they took advantage of them in line with the old maxim ‘divide and rule’. The British seemed to favour the minority Muslims who looked to them for the protection of its interests against the Hindu majority.

The British established a Muslim college at Aligarh, near Agra, which was designed to impart Western education to Muslims while at the same time emphasising their Islamic identity. This college, later called Aligarh Muslim University, became an ideological centre whose influence radiated far beyond the province in which it was established.

Challenged by the foundation of a Muslim university, the Hindus soon made a move to start a Hindu university which was eventually established at Benares (Varanasi) and became a major center of Western education.

The establishment of two sectarian universities in the United Provinces was characteristic of the political and cultural situation in that part of India, also clearly demarcated the ‘Hindu’ from the rest.

 [There is an interesting side-light , which is often cited. Some claim it is true; and, others deny it.

Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya, in his efforts to set up the Benares Hindu University at Varanasi, went around many parts of the country, collecting funds to finance its building-constructions.

During the year 1911, as a part of his roundabout  roving around  the country, a sort of tour de France or a big loop,  Malaviya called upon the Nizam of Hyderabad (then reputedly the richest man in the world), soliciting funds for setting up a Hindu University. To say the least, the Nizam was not amused; and, is said to have hurled one of his shoes at the visitor.

Malaviya, it is said, picked up the shoe; and went directly to the market place for auctioning it.  As it was Nizam’s footwear, many, naturally, came forward to buy it. The bids kept going up.

When Nizam learnt of this unseemly incident at the market place, causing needless disturbance and much amusement among the crowds, he was annoyed; and, asked his officials to put an end to what he deemed as a charade or mockery. One of his attendants was instructed to ‘Buy back that footwear, no matter whatever its price be!’

Needless to say, the shoe fetched considerable amount, given the context of its times. . The money, it is said, was used to build a teacher’s colony in BHU called Hyderabad colony.

In any case, it could be said that Malaviya either convinced or persuaded the Nizam to support his cause.]

Malaviya auctioning Nizam's shoe 1911


Role of the Missionaries

If the British imperialism played a leading role in the construction of ‘Hinduism’, the role of the Christian Missionaries was no less important.

Because of the effort of the group of Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, the British Parliament resolved that Christianisation of India was the solemn duty of the British Government. This led to the unrestricted ‘opening’ up of India to missionaries with full freedom to condemn and malign Hindu religious practices and institutions. It also led to the setting up of the Ecclesiastic Department as a part of the Government of India.

The Christian Missionaries, thereafter , enjoyed a special and a privileged relationship with the British Government. Britain was seen the ‘Mother Country’ of Empire whose official religion was Christianity. The British rulers in India viewed themselves as the servants and protectors of the Mother country as also of its religion. The Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity under the protective canopy of the British Raj.

The Missionary activity earnestly picked up strength since 1813 under the aegis of the East India Company. Even later under the protective canopy of the British Raj, the Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity as the ‘true religion’; and denounce Hinduism as a ‘compound of error, c corruption and exaggeration’ and as a false religion.

With such propaganda, a clear line was drawn between Hindu and non-Hindu religions.


Oriental Scholars of the West

The oriental scholars were also influenced by the British government and by the Church.

There were the Oriental scholars, funded by wealthy private patrons, who carried forward the Missionary agenda. Lt. Col. Boden of the Bombay Native Infantry endowed a Chair in the Oxford University for propagating Christianity in India through Sanskrit.

In 1832, Horace Hayman Wilson became the first to be appointed  to the newly founded Boden chair of Sanskrit.  His  view was that Christianity should replace the Vedic culture. And, he believed that full knowledge of Indian traditions would help effect that conversion. Aware that the Indians would be reluctant to give up their culture and religion, Wilson made the following remark:

A learned Brahman trusts solely to his learning; he never ventures upon independent thought; he appeals to memory; he quotes texts without measure and in unquestioning trust. It will be difficult to persuade him that the Vedas are human and very ordinary writings,  that the Puranas are modern and unauthentic, or even that the Tantras are not entitled to respect. As long as he opposes authority to reason, and stifles the workings of conviction by the dicta of a reputed sage, little impression can be made upon his understanding. Certain it is, therefore, that he will have recourse to his authorities, and it is therefore important to show that his authorities are worthless.”

With the death of Horace Hayman Wilson in 1860, the Boden Chair fell vacant. Monier Williams was the hot contender to the Chair; competing against Max Muller, who was known for his philosophical speculations based on his reading of Vedic literature. Monier Williams, in contrast, was seen as a less brilliant scholar;  but , he had the advantage of being familiar  with the  religious practices in modern Hinduism.

As a part of his submission to the members of Convocation of the University of Oxford, 1860, Monier Williams had assured:

Having commenced my career as a Scholar on the foundation of Colonel Boden, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the munificent benefactor, who provided for the perpetual study of Sanskrit in the University of Oxford; and, if I am elected to the Boden Professorship, my utmost energies shall be devoted to the one object which its Founder had in view; namely “The promotion of a more general and critical knowledge of the Sanskrit language, as a means of enabling Englishmen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion”.

Sir Monier Williams  did  succeed in becoming the second-Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, England. He studied, documented and taught Asian languages, especially Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani.

He made it clear that his interest in preparing dictionaries was primarily to translate the Bible into other languages. He said that he would initially fulfill the wish of Col. Boden to translate the Bible into Sanskrit ‘in order to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion’. Monier Williams, eventually, compiled a Sanskrit-English dictionary based on the earlier Peters-burg Sanskrit Dictionary which was published in 1872. A later revised edition was published in 1899 with collaboration by Ernst Leumann and Carl Cappel.

In his writings on Hinduism, Monier Williams argued that Hinduism is a complex ‘huge polygon or irregular multilateral figure’ that was unified by Sanskrit literature. He stated that ‘no description of Hinduism can be exhaustive which does not touch on almost every religious and philosophical idea that the world has ever known’.

Monier Williams taught Asian languages, at the East India Company College from 1844 until 1858, when the rule of the East India Company in India ended, after the 1857 rebellion. He came to national prominence during the 1860 election campaign for the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University, in which he stood against Max Müller.

After his appointment to the professorship, Williams had declared, from the outset, that the conversion of India to the Christian religion should be one of the aims of all types of orientalist scholarship.


Max Müller (1823 –1900) considered that Hinduism which was characterized by superstition and idolatry needed to be reformed just in the manner of Christian Reformation.  In his letters to the Dean of St. Paul’s (Dr. Milman) of February 26, 1867, Max Muller wrote: I have myself the strongest belief in the growth of Christianity in India. There is no country so ripe for Christianity as India, and yet the difficulties seem enormous.

In a letter to his wife, Max Muller wrote: “It (The Rig-Veda) is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”

In one of the letters, he says, “Ah! We have found the key to Christianize India.” And the key, according to him, was the Brahmo Samaj, in which the missionaries reposed great hope as the intermediate station for the Hindus of Bengal to become Christians. They had their hopes, in particular, on Keshav Chandra Sen, who was heading the Brahmo Samaj then.

 Later he also wrote to the Duke of Argyle, the then acting Secretary of State for India: “The ancient religion of India is doomed. And if Christianity does not take its place, whose fault will it be?”

In his 60s through 70s, Max Müller gave a series of lectures, which depicted his view of Hinduism. That somehow was followed by others of his time.


Many have argued:   “The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology that is to be propagated and by any method imposed on others for e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’.

They point out that ‘Hinduism’ that the western world perceived was essentially the construction of the British imperialism, the nineteenth century western scholars and the Missionaries. Such constructions were made to suit their own agenda.



 ‘Hindus’ and ‘Hinduism’

As we saw, the concept of Hindu and Hinduism that emerged during the Nineteenth century was mainly in terms of the notions imposed by imperialism, missionary impulse and western scholarship.

Many educated Indians of the nineteenth century, therefore, mounted a counter attack on the Christian Missionary propaganda against Hinduism, adopting their own (missionary) methods and style.

There were also those who sought to remedy the flaws through which others tried to expose and exploit Hinduism, by revaluing the ancient texts, by reforming the Hindu practices and such other radical explanations.

In addition, there were the Indian elite who somehow seemed to be apologetic about Hindu beliefs and practices; and brought in social and cultural reforms. A Bengali Renaissance tried to usher in a new type of philosophical Hinduism tinged with a romantic nostalgia for some of the nobler forms of Vedic traditions.

At the same time, many cast doubts upon the conclusions of the oriental scholars, pointing out the flaws in their sectarian stance and arguments and dogmatic approach .

There was another set of Indians trying to make use of the religious enactments passed by the Government and take control of the religious institutions; while at the same time protesting against threats and encroachment on Hindu interests.

The construction of Hinduism thus arose out of encounter and interaction with the West. And it owed much to the Indian elite.

Such assortment of   ’ Hinduism’, thus, was mostly the creation of the nineteenth century Indians as a response to or in confrontation with the Western interpretations. Their reaction also to an extent contributed to the shaping of Western perception of ‘Hinduism’.

 Brahmo Samaj on Cornwallis Street

Some of the influences that shaped and re-shaped the concept of ‘Hinduism’, during the nineteenth century, were obviously religious; and, in addition there were also social, cultural and political organizations that projected their concept of ‘Hinduism’.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Brahmo Samaj looked down upon the current practices as corrupt and degenerate. The Brahmo Samaj harked back to the ancient and pure ways of the Upanishads, formulating an enlightened creed of ‘Hinduism’.

Swami Dayananda Saraswathi also aspired to bring back the principles and practices of the Vedic times. He called upon all Indians to study Vedas.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a mystic seer, through his own experiences declared the oneness of all religious   paths ‘and took a ‘universal’ view of all religions and varied paths leading to same goal.

Jatiya Mela and Jatiya Sabha  of Bengal came together, (renamed as Hindu Mela, in 1867), in order to promote a distinct identity of the ‘Hindu’ and a sense of pride in being a ’Hindu’


There were also movements of emerging popular ‘Hinduism’ floating their own pet brand of ‘Hinduism’.


In the political terms, the concepts of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ got entwined with nationalistic ambitions of several organizations.

Some of those nationalists portrayed the land Hindustan as the holy Motherland of the people of India.  For instance; Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (1838-1894) raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram  had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary.  He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian religious ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.

Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru and followed his ideals of India and ‘Hinduism’.

The Hindu Mahasabha founded in 1909 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was based in the idea of Hindutva. It called upon Hindus to fight for the freedom of Motherland and to consolidate the Hindu nation.

That movement fell into decline rather soon. And, its place was taken by Rastriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inspired by the ideals of the Anushilan Samiti , was established by Dr.  Hedgewar (1889 –1940)  in 1925 with the ideal to ‘unite and rejuvenate our nation on the sound foundation of Dharma’.

Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) the political offshoot of RSS carried a similar ideal.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) a cultural organization with undertone of Hindu religion vowed to protect Hindu religion from encroachment by other religions.

These movements also contributed towards identification and demarcation of ‘Hinduism’ where “Hinduism’ was broadly associated with nationhood.


Hinduism variously conceived

Variously conceived, ‘Hinduism’ was generally regarded as the ‘essential religion of India’. And yet; the views on the quintessence of Hinduism varied greatly. The question got complicated by the presence and practices of immense varieties of beliefs and plurality of perspectives. But, yet there have also been efforts to equate ‘Hinduism’ with a particular version of it. There are also those who wish to treat Hinduism as a group of ‘religions’ or a socio-cultural unit or civilization which consist a plurality of distinct religions

There are also different versions of ‘Hinduism’. Sri Sankara’s non-dualistic Advaita philosophy takes a broad view and reconciles the apparently conflicting beliefs within the ‘Hinduism’ as a system. Then there is the Vaishnava theology centred on devotion on a personified God. There are also affiliate home-grown religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikh-religion. There is also the juxtaposition of foreign faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.


The acceptance of the Vedas and their authority has been cited by the Supreme Court as one of the characteristics of Hinduism.

It is no doubt that Vedas are the roots of Indian ethos, thought and philosophy. They are of high authority, greatly revered and very often invoked. But, their roots are lost in the distant antiquity. The language or the clear intent of those texts is not easily understood; its gods and its rites are almost relics of the past. They no longer form active part of our day-to-day living experiences. The worship practices followed by the common Indians of the present day differ vastly from the rites prescribed in the Vedic texts. The gods worshipped by the present generations too vary greatly from the Vedic gods .  In today’s world, it is the popular gods, modes of worship as in the duality of   Tantra that has greater impact on socio religious cultural practices than the Vedas. The living religion of ‘Hindus’, as practiced today, is almost entirely in the nature or the version of what appeals to each sect,  or  to each individual .  

[Most of the Western Scholars consistently draw a distinction between the Vedic tradition and the ‘Hinduism’.]


There is also a claim to adhere to Sanatana Dharma (eternal law), an equivalent of perennial philosophy of the West, where all ‘religions’ are unified. This is despite the fact that the meaning and scope of the term Dharma is far wider than ‘religion’; and is not restricted to religion or sect.

[ The term Sanatana is , often , explained thus : ‘Puratana‘ is that which belongs to the past; ‘Nutana‘ is that which has come into existence now ; and “Sanatana‘ is that which has been in the past, existing in present, and continuing in the future. It is present at all times. It is eternal.] 

But, the term Sanatana Dharma is perhaps used to signify orthodoxy as opposed to reformed ‘Hinduism’. That is based in the belief that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ though of great antiquity is indeed an ongoing process that changes while retaining continuity. Yet, it is rooted the aspiration of attaining liberation (Mukti) from all sorts of confines and limitation.  It is all-inclusive in nature and not shutting out new ideas and concepts; it is also not regimented by fixed set of rules or commandments.

The proponents of  Sanatana Dharma concept assert that ’Hinduism’ is a recent construct, which was  introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India. Despite that rather newly coined epithet, they point out, it essentially refers to a rich cumulative tradition of texts and practices that date back to a very distant past. And, they quote The Supreme Court which said that Hindu does not signify a religion but a way of life; and represents the culture of India, and of all people of India, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.



At the End

Thus, though the word Hindu (not originally Indian) might have, in the past, referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc, yet, it has, over a period, come to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.

Now, generally, one is understood to be a Hindu by being born into a Hindu family and practicing the faith, or by declaring oneself a Hindu. It has been used as a geographical, cultural, or religious identifier for people indigenous to South Asia. In any case, Hinduism is now a nomenclature for the religious tradition of India and the suffix ism is hardly noticed. Not many have qualms in accepting ‘Hinduism’ or being a ‘Hindu’.


A Hindu is a Hindu not because he wanted to be distinct and created a room and put a door around him. But, because others started constructing walls everywhere, and at some point of time, the Hindu found that the walls other constructed somehow became his boundaries as well.

– Julia Roberts

lotus offering



Sources and References

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. A History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund ; Fourth Edition; Routledge ; 2004
  3. The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati by Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao (Surama Prakashana – 2011)

Posted by on October 26, 2016 in General Interest, Hindu-Hindutva, History


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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Three

Continued from Part Two


Bhagavad-Gita in translations

As mentioned in the earlier part, the influence of the Bhagavad-Gita began to spread far and beyond Asia following its translations into English and other European languages during the latter part of 18th century, The Bhagavad-Gita captured the attention of the western scholars, intellectuals as also that of the general-readers. That, not merely widened the extent of its readership but also lent it the scope for deriving varied interpretations

In 1785, the Gita became the first Sanskrit work to be translated into English; and, it provoked widespread excitement among English Orientalists, German Romantics, and American Transcendentalists. By about 1890, the Gita was accessible to average European and American; and, it came to be regarded as India’s national or spiritual symbol

In its extended life, the Bhagavad-Gita was enriched with new meanings and new relevance in new settings. Different aspects of the work came to the fore.   The new hearers and new readers found in it  the ways to answers  their varied concerns.

The translations of the Bhagavad-Gita have a very interesting history. Ms. Mishka Sinha in her A History of the Gita’s Transnational Reception, 1785-1945 has very ably chronicled the saga of Gita’s translations  and interpretations during and after the eighteenth century. She writes in the introduction to her paper: ‘the Gita as a received and translated text was significantly altered (during this period) in certain specific ways which continue to influence its present understanding both in the West and in India’. Much of this installment of the article is based on Ms. Sinha’s paper.

[Please check here for varieties of translations and commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita.]


Code of the Gentoos Law

With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters.

warren hastings

Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’.

His immediate object thereafter  was to  devise an arrangement  to dispense law/justice  to the Indian litigants  in ways that are as close  as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious.


But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

 [The criminal cases were to be decided according to British laws.]

By August 1972, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos* shall be invariably adhered to’.

[* A brief explanation about the term ‘Gentoo’ appears necessary here.

It is said; ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Portuguese word Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native.

The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the west coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens.

Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.

It is explained; that such concept of ‘heathen’ is derived from the Christian-world view. According to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium).

Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the Europeans as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

code of Gentoos

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws, (pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And,  their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to  by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency ; and , it largely meant  ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

Thereafter, the word Hindu (though not originally Indian) which till then commonly referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.]


That Declaration led to taking up the huge task of building a body of jurisprudence to serve as the source of indigenous case-laws. Hastings, for that purpose, ordered Nathaniel Halhed (1751-1830), an orientalist as also a philologist, to supervise the task. Halhed, who was well versed in Persian and Bengali started with compiling Hindu legal code from a Persian version of the original Sanskrit.

Thereafter, a panel of ten pundits was commissioned to compile a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based, mainly, on the body Dharma-shastras from the original Sanskrit texts. The digest compiled from various sources was named Vivada –arnava- setu or the sea of litigation.

The process had to be hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774, as an Appellant Authority

And, for the benefit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit, it became necessary to prepare a translated version of the compilation made by the Pundits (Vivada –arnava- setu) in addition to that of the  selected ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property (Vyvahara).  Such translated compilation/ compendium were made in two versions; one in English and the other in Persian. The task of translation and its publication was entrusted to Nathaniel Halhed.

The English version of the digest was titled A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundits; and, was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

That gave birth to the concept of a Hindu Personal Law.

[Attempts were also made to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Such attempts were not successful; and, an agreed sequence of authoritative chronological order of the ancient Dharma-Sutra texts could not be established.

However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. That completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law, as the British Judges of the Colonial India saw it fit.

What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges’ decisions – as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and, it is left to the skill and wisdom of the judges and lawyers to search for an apt precedent; and,  to apply it to make the point of law. Those precedents were  again those that were set up by the English judges.

What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians made by the British – just what Indians would have wished to avoid.]

Such projects could not have been carried out successfully without the cooperation of the unacknowledged “native pundit” who provided the all-important linguistic expertise as well as cultural and historical context surrounding the texts in translation. But, sad to say they did not seem to have been treated fairly. Unacknowledged on title pages of translated texts, these scholar-translators were often portrayed as crafty Brahmins deliberately misleading; offering “obscure” textual interpretations; and possibly jeopardizing translation projects.

Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon

Following his involvement in the compilation of a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based mainly on translations from Sanskrit texts, Warren Hastings asked Charles Wilkins , a merchant in the service of the East India Company to attempt translate Bhagavad-Gita , the most well known Hindu Book , into English. 

NPG D7848; Sir Charles Wilkins by John Sartain, published by  Moon, Boys & Graves, after  James Godsell Middleton

[ Charles Wilkins (1749 –1836), who was trained as a type-setter and printer, came to India during 1770, while he was about twenty years of age; and, joined the service of East India Company as a writer, or junior clerk. He learnt Persian and Bengali; and, was soon appointed as Company’s official translator of Persian and Bengali. He was also the first to attempt to design the typeset of the Bengali script, which task he completed in 1778 with the assistance of a gem-engraver and the expert blacksmith, Panchanana Karmakara.


[Please read the paper produced by Ms. Komal Pande, the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi, describing how Charles   Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language.]

sanskrit type set

Charles Wilkins assisted William Jones (1746 –1794) a scholar and Judge in the Supreme Court in Bengal, to establish the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. Wilkins moved to Varanasi to learn Sanskrit from Kasinatha Bhattacharya recognized as Sarva-shastra-guru – Master of all Shastras.  During this period, he attempted translating portions of Mahabharata into English under the guidance of his teacher (though he did not credit or acknowledge Kasinatha in his published translation). Wilkins’ translation of Mahabharata remained incomplete. He, however, could complete the translation of Bhagavad-Gita, a segment of the Mahabharata

For more: please check:

Sir Charles Wilkins’ life and works by Shamboo Chander Dey ; under the series  Eminent Orientalists :Indian, European and American (pages 27 to 45)

Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the First English Bhagavad Gita by Richard H. Davis]

Warren Hastings had a great fascination for the Gita; and, was thrilled by Wilkins’ translation. He persuaded the Court of Directors of the East India Company to publish the work at the company’s expense. Charles Wilkins’ English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was first brought out under the auspices of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta in November 1784. And, it was only later that it was published from London in 1785.

In his preface, Warren Hastings, praising the literary merits of Wilkins’ work, described it as: “a performance of great originality, of a sublimity of conception, reasoning and diction almost unequaled, and single exception among all the known religions of mankind of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation and most powerfully illustrating its fundamental doctrines.”

Hastings asserted that the study and true practice of the Gita’s teachings would lead humanity to peace and bliss. In his Introduction , Hastings while quoting  few translated verses said :

‘Among many Precepts of fine Morality I am particularly delighted with the following, because it has been the invariable Rule of my latter Life, and often applied to the earlier State of it, before I had myself reduced it to the Form of a Maxim in writing. It is thus:

: – Let the Motive be in the Deed, and not in the Event;

: – Be not one whose motive for Action is the Hope of Reward. Let not thy Life be spent in Inaction. Depend on Application;

:- perform thy Duty, abandon all Thought of the Consequence, and make the Event equal, whether it terminate in Good or Evil; for such an Equality is called Application;

William Hastings was confident that Gita ‘will survive when the British domination in India shall have long ceased to exist’.


The Bhagavad-Gita rendered into English by Charles Wilkins Charles was formally published in 1785 under the elaborate title: Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; in eighteen lectures; with notes; translated from the original, in Sanskreet, or the ancient language of the Brahmans; (London: C. Nourse, 1785). It earned the reputation of being the first widely known text to have been directly translated from Sanskrit into a European language. And, that brought Gita to the attention of Europe and other regions.

[Later, Wilkins’ translation went into several improved and revised editions in 1809; 1849.1885; 1959; and 1970]

In his preface, Wilkins mentioned that his objective in translating the Gita into English was:’ to encourage a form of monotheist “Unitarianism” and to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism ascribed to the Vedas’.

However, both Charles Wilkins and Warren Hastings had anticipated that the British interest in Gita would most likely be generated from ‘curiosity towards a strange cultural object’. They surmised, unerringly, that this aspect would ultimately prove the most significant attraction for their readers in England.

Accordingly, in England, Gita initially gained publicity mainly as a curious cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East or as a glimpses of the ‘ immature and primitive stage of human civilization..  The majority of general readership in Britain was primarily interested in traveler’s tales, however wild and fanciful.

As an early review put it; ‘Ultimately, the Gita’s importance lay not in any intrinsic quality it may have possessed, but in its value as “a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Bhagavad-Gita was treated as either poetry, song or as literature of philosophical nature rather than scripture.

Apart from the general readers, Wilkins’ work attracted the attention of Christian Missionary who sought to use it to counter Hindu arguments; and to down-size Krishna as an Indian copy of Jesus. Gradually, the Gita spread to the writers and authors looking for the exotic. William Blake the celebrated Romantic poet in his picture The Bramins (1809) depicted Wilkins and Brahmin scholars working on the translation. Blake’s drawing suggested that the importance of the Gita lay ‘in its significance as an object of secret knowledge recovered through intellectual labor and imperial triumph from its hitherto unknowable form within a previously hidden tradition’.(Sadly, Blake’s drawing of The Bramins is said to be lost) 

Despite a fairly favorable initial reception, Wilkins’s translation did not achieve much significance in its early decades. Gradually, the  curiosity gave place to serious study by the scholars. William Jones advised all those who wished to “form a correct idea of Indian religion and literature” to forget “all that has been written on the subject, by ancients and moderns, before the publication of the Gítà” (Jones 1799: 363).

Other translations

Within a decade after its publication, Charles Wilkins’s translation gained wide publicity; and, it was further translated into French (Le Bhaguat –Geeta ou Dialogues de Kreeshna et d’Arjoon ..) by Abbé Parraud (1787); followed by translation into Russian by Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov (1787) – which is said to have inspired Count Leo Tolstoy; and into German (Der Bhaguat-Geeta, oder Gesprache zwischen Kreeshna und Arjoon)   by Friedrich Von Majer (1802).

Bhaguat gita

(Said to be world’s first French translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Parraud. Please click here to download the Book in PDF format)

There were also other translations.


The scholars Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, in their much acclaimed work The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, (Oxford University Press, 2014)  write:

The earliest translations of the Gita (into German) emerged in the context of the Romantic fascination with the Orient.

Johann Gottfried Herder; Friedrich Majer; Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel; August Wilhelm Schlegel, as well as the Philosopher-Statesman Wilhelm Von Humboldt had produced Gita editions or Gita translations and commentaries…

In his Zerstreute Blatter of 1792, J G herder had included three collections of verses from the Bhagavad-Gita under the heading ‘Gedanken einiger Brahmanen’ (thoughts of some Brahmans) . The collection included a total of eleven verses chosen from Chapters Two and Three of the Gita; and, were individually titled ‘Die Verstorbenen’ (The Dead Verses : 2,11,13,14 and 15); ‘Dreifacher Zustand’ (Three-fold Condition:  Verse 2,27); and, ‘Religion’ (Religion : Verses 3, 10, 11, 12, 13,14 and 16)….

Herder’s poetic rendering was followed in 1802 by the first complete translation of the Gita into German (albeit from the English edition of Charles Wilkins , rather than from Sanskrit) by his student Friederich Majer. Majer’s translation included an introduction, in which he pointed out the affinities between the Gita’s doctrine and Platonic and Spinozistic philosophy.

This tradition of philosophical appreciation was continued by Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel, who appended an excerpted translation of the Gita to his 1808 study , Die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier .


Friedrich Schlegel Friedrich Schlegel (formally: Karl Wilhelm Friedrich; 1772-1829) a German poet, philosopher and Indologist in his monumental work, Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier : Ein Beitrag zur Begrûndung der Alterthumskunde (On the Language and Wisdom of India) – a lengthy comparative study of Indian language and philosophy – Heidelberg, 1808, observed the similarities in the grammatical structures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German . As an appendix to his book, he included direct translations from Sanskrit into German of extracts from the Bhagavad Gita  (about one-fifth of the Gita in metrical German ) and other important classical Indian texts. The  work of Schlegel marks a significant moment of transition in the European study of the Bhagavad Gita and other classical Sanskrit works. While  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.”

Schlegel argued that a people originating from India were the founders of the first European civilizations. He came to the conclusion that Sanskrit was the earliest form or the source of all the other classical languages.

Friedrich Schlegel’s study of the India and Indian languages inspired his elder brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel to move to Paris in order to study Sanskrit.  In 1818, Wilhelm became the first academic professor of Sanskrit in Germany, at the University of Bonn. 

The Schlegel-brothers, particularly Friedrich, came to be regarded as the founder of the Romantic school, which profoundly influenced the development of German literature since the beginning of the 19th century.

August Wilhelm Von Schlegel (1767-1845), who was the Professor of Indology and Sanskrit in the University of Bonn, published the Latin version of the Gita with original Sanskrit text (1823). This was the first direct translation of the Gita into a European language.

Between 1820 and 1830, August Schlegel published Indische Bibliothek, a collection of Indian texts. He is considered the founder of Sanskrit philology in Germany. His praise for the Bhagavad Gita was: If the study of Sanskrit had brought nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to read this superb poem in the original, I would have been amply compensated for all my labors. It is a sublime reunion of poetic and philosophical genius.

As a result of the early German philosophical engagement with the Bhagavad-Gita, the text not only continued to be translated by European,  British and Indian scholars but was also accorded a Bible-like status..


A few years later, a French translation of the Gita was made directly from Sanskrit by Jean-Denis Lanjuinais (1832); and published Posthumously. He had remarked that it was a great surprise to find among these fragments of an extremely ancient epic poem from India . . . a completely spiritual pantheism . . . and . . . the vision of all-in-God’.

Another direct translation into French was made by Émile-Louis Burnouf in 1861- (La Bhagavad-Gîtâ, ou le Chant du Bienheureux, poème indien).

And, a Greek translation by Demetrios Galanos was published posthumously by in 1848.

[Another translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into German by Dr. Franz Hartmann, a German medical doctor, theosophist and occultist , gained much attention , perhaps for wrong reasons. [ Bhagavad Gita, Die [nach diesem Titel suchen, White Lotus, Leipzig, 1924 ]

Heinrich Himmler was a Nazi , often described as the architect of the Holocaust. He was a very complex person indeed.  According to Felix Kersten (his personal massage therapist), from 1941 until his death four years later,  Himmler carried a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in his pocket; and,  read passages from it regularly every night. The book was a translation of the Gita  by Dr. Franz Hartmann.] 


Other English translations

In 1882, John Davies, Member of the Royal Asiatic society, of the Cambridge philological Society, came up with a prose translation of the Bhagavad-Gita published by the English and Foreign Philological Library; London Kegan Paul , Trench, Trubner  & Co, 1882 with an elaborate title : Hindu Philosophy The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem. Edwin Arnold in the preface to his translation the Gita (The song Celestial) lauds the prose transcript of Devies as being ‘truly beyond praise for its fidelity and clearness.’

The Davies’ translation was preceded , in 1855, by that of   J. Cockburn Thomson—a former student of H. H. Wilson, the first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford produced an improved translation of the Gita from the original Sanskrit text as The Gita or a Discourse between Krishna and Arjuna on Divine matters (a Sanskrit philosophical poem translated with copious notes, an introduction to Sanskrit philosophy and other matters); published by Stephen Austin, Hertford- 1835. According to Thomson, Wilkins translation was “far from giving a clear idea of the work … and still less of its philosophy.”

Charles Johnston, a retired English civil servant in Bengal and a Sanskrit scholar, brought forth a translation in 1908 in Flushing, New York of the Bhagavad Gita: “The Songs of the Master.” Johnston, in his lengthy Introduction paid rich tribute to the ancient text: ‘The Bhagavad Gita is one of the noblest scriptures of India, one of the deepest scriptures of the world. . . . a symbolic scripture, with many meanings, containing many truths. . . . [That] forms the living heart of the Eastern wisdom’.

A feature of these early English translations was to present the Gita as an expression of higher, abstract philosophical ideas within Hinduism, as distinct from its lower, popular, superstitious forms.

And, One hundred years after the publication of Wilkins’ translation Sir Edwin Arnold translated the Gita into blank verse – The Song Celestial (1885).  It achieved great fame as the most important and most widely-read version of the Gita. It also inspired Gandhi into the life-long study of the Gita. (Let’s talk more of these in the next Part)



Spread of Gita’s influence

Wilkins’s translation made its way throughout Europe, and across the Atlantic, where it became a key scripture for American Transcendentalists. Carlyle presented Ralf Waldo Emerson with a copy of Wilkins’ translation of the Gita which proved to be his greatest source of inspiration. That also influenced the Concord (Transcendental). All other similar movements in America, in one way or the other, are indebted to Concord. Henry David Thoreau, living at Walden Pond in 1846, wrote of ‘bathing his intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta.’

From about 1880 the number of translations of the Gita began to raise steeply, both in English and in other European languages, while translation into Indian vernaculars also increased at the same time. At this juncture the text began to occupy a new cultural space within a broader context, and ignited intellectual debates in the West. Such translations and commentaries mainly focused on the allegorical or symbolic aspects of Gita and on the universal relevance of the text.

Swami Vivekananda color

[poster by an unknown artist, published by Goes Lithographic, Chicago , 1893 ; believed  to have been sponsored by Henry Slayton, Organizer of Vivekananda’s lecture tour.]

The participation of Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 and his subsequent series of talks in various cities of America also introduced the Bhagavad-Gita in particular and Vedanta studies in general to the western world. 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”. 

The Swami asserted that the foundation of Hinduism is the revelation found in the ancient Vedas; and , the Bhagavad Gita is the most authoritative commentary on the Vedas.

One of the Gita’s main achievements, according to Swami 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.” Swami Vivekananda closed his lecture by endorsing the concept of a universal religion; but suggested  it may already exist in the form of ancient Hinduism.

While in USA , the Swami quoting  the Gita,  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 non-attachment to the fruits of action in order to temper the acquisitive materialistic ethos of the American gilded age. 

[During Vivekananda’s cross-cultural career as a public speaker, the Gita conveyed differing messages to different audiences; depending on the Swami’s sense of the needs of his American or Indian listeners.

While in India, Swami stressed  on the Gita’s message  of socially engaged action or the path of karma yoga. “First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards,” he taught, “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.”.. Swami Vivekananda approvingly quotes Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna, as a directive to young India : “Yield not to un-manliness, Oh Partha”]

By then, the Gita was beginning to gain   considerable significance in India’s struggle for freedom, where some groups interpreted as a call for armed protest against British Rule in India. At the same time, there were also others like Gandhi, preaching the values of a self-disciplined, non-violent struggle against oppression.


Approach of the translators

Since then, the Gita has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. There have been hundreds of commentaries in Eastern and Western languages. Outside of India, the Gita is regarded as the first and the foremost work opening the way to understand Hinduism. The Gita has continued to live through the responses and interpretations of generations of readers.

As Richard H. Davis writes in the introduction to his The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography:

 ‘The work has lived a vivid and contentious existence over the centuries since, through readings and recitations; translations and commentaries that have transcribed this classic into many currents and disputes.

Thus , the medieval  Hindu Gurus, British colonial scholars, German romantics, Globe-trotting spiritual speakers, Indian anti-colonial freedom fighters, western students and spiritual seekers all have engaged in dialogue with the Gita, each in his/her own manner’

But, again, there was a basic difference between the attitudes and the approach of the western scholars and the Indian translators/ commentators.


Each translation results from a series of choices. These choices reflect the translator’s own premises, aims, and conception of what that work most essentially is. In a valuable study of Gita translations in English, Gerald Larson speaks of the “strategic decisions” every translator must make. He analyzes these along four axes: the stylistic pedagogical, interpretive, and motivational continua. Does the translator seek to maintain primarily the stylistic character of the Sanskrit original or to produce a literary rendering in appropriate English? What kind of audience does the translator envision for the work? Does the translator consider the task as rendering the meaning of the work in its time of composition or as it might take on new significance in contemporary times? What personal motivations or subjective reasons does the translator bring to the task of translating the Gita? Along with the skill that any translator brings to the task of navigating between Sanskrit and English, these strategic decisions together will help determine the shape of the Gita’s new English clothes.

There are also choices involved in the textual accompaniments that surround a translation in the body of a publication, or the “para-text” in Gerard Genette’s productive phrase. Does the book also contain interspersed commentary? Or parallel Sanskrit text? Does it have footnotes, and what issues do these notes address? Does it have an introduction? What topics are addressed there? How do these materials relate the Bhagavad Gita intertextually to other religious and literary works? As Genette reminds us, these “threshold” materials extend the work itself, mediating between the primary text and its public audience, guiding readers toward and within the translation.(Source : Erenow)


For most of the Western academics and researchers, ‘the translated Bhagavad-Gita was a proof of an ancient and glorious civilization; and, they  believed that the work was culturally important.  Almost all such translations of the Bhagavad-Gita during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, treated it as a literary work, a song or as a philosophical poem; but , not as scripture.  For example;  Bhagavad-gita; or, The Sacred Lay, a Colloquy between Krishna and Arjuna on Divine Matters (J Cockburn Thompson 1855); The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem (John Davies,1882)  ; and, The Song Celestial or Bhagavad-Gita (Edwin Arnold,   1900 ).  Edwin Arnold, in the preface to his translation, refers to Bhagavad-Gita as ‘famous marvelous Sanskrit poem in which in plain and noble language it unfolds a philosophical system ‘. He observes that when translated it would enhance English literature’.

And, for the Christian Missionary translators it was a philosophical text that needs to be countered; but, surely, not a ‘sacred scripture’. They consistently made a distinction between the abstract philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita and the superstitions of the Hindu mired in mythology of gods ‘stained by cruelty and lust’ (John Davis 1882). Thus while the high philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita might approximate somewhere near to Christian principles, it would not be adequate to redeem the lost souls of the Hindu.

The primary purpose of missionary writings on Hinduism  and the Gita was to understand the beliefs of the peoples they were seeking to convert, so that future missionaries could come well-prepared to defend Christianity The noted examples of such early works were: De Open-Duere tot het Verborgen Heydendom [1651- The Open Door to Hitherto Concealed Heathenism] by Abraham Roger (d. 1649)  ; and, ‘Genealogy of the Malabarian Gods from Native Writings and Letters’ by Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg(1682–1719). Such missionary interest in “heathen” Hinduism continued in the following century with William Jones’s essay, “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India” (1788) and William Ward’s A View of the History, Literature, and the Mythology of the Hindoos (1815-18).

[ Hephzibah Israel, a Lecturer in Translation Studies, University of Edinburgh, in her well researched paper Translating the Sacred: Colonial Constructions and Postcolonial Perspectives writes :

Thus, apart from Christian missionaries and Orientalist scholars, a whole range of Europeans – travelers, traders, colonial administrators – translated sacred texts of various kinds and for a variety of purposes. These translations were “speech acts” from different perspectives, sometimes working at cross purposes, sometimes colluding to produce convenient stereotypes of native cultures. Translation became a key mode of interpretation for these diverse interests. Common evaluative tools of textual interpretations and exegeses were employed across textual genres for the purpose of translation. The result was a shared archive of translated knowledge of what came to be termed the “Hindu mind” in colonial parlance

Although missionary and imperial interests did not always coincide, such translation activity helped to build a corpus of knowledge regarding key aspects of Indian “culture” that both could draw on and use for their respective purposes: shared methods of interpretation, shared attitudes toward languages and their interrelations, and shared translation techniques contributed to a shared understanding of their non-European “Others.”]


But, for the Indian translators, the Bhagavad-Gita was a sacred scripture, a Holy Book and one of the three fundamental texts (Prasthana-traya) of the ancient Dharma. They write in a tone that respects the Gita’s resilience and acknowledges the reverence it commands from its adherents. They have the faith that the Gita is still vibrantly alive, and “will continue to reincarnate itself in new ways’. Translating the Gita, and explaining the ‘inner-meaning (Anthara-artha) was an act of fulfillment, of educating fellow Indians; and as a duty to spread the truth. It was also an attempt to present Gita as a Universal message; and Hinduism as an open-ended outlook of life in contrast to other rigid religious faiths.

A significant number of Indians engaged in translation, offered the Bhagavad-Gita as an example of the highest Hindu philosophical thought. For instance ; Tiruvalum Subba Row’s Discourses on the Bhagavat Gita (1888) and  R. Sivasankara Pandiyaji’s  translation, Bhagavad Gita Sara Bodhini or The Essential Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita (1897)  sought  “to help students in studying its philosophy” and to “lead them back to a purer faith”.

Even among the Indians, particularly of colonial India of early 20th century, the nationalists promoted the Gita as a central work of an emerging Indian national ethos.  According to them, the new battlefield was the British Raj, calling for concerted social and political action. The form of such action was , however, a matter of debate – violence Vs non-violence.  

[The Gita Press at Gorakhpur did remarkable work, in the early twentieth century, in spreading the message of the Gita among the common people. It widely distributed copies of Gita translated into Hindi and other languages. And, during the turbulent period of resistance to colonial rule, Gita , somehow,  came to be seen as a symbol of’ ‘nationalism’. And, during that period, anyone possessing more than a single copy of the Gita was suspected by the British as a ‘trouble-maker’. In a move to resist or even overwhelm the British, the Gita Press during 1927 distributed , freely or at a nominal price  , copies of ‘Gita Diaries’ , which also featured selected  verses from  the Gita spread  over the whole year; along with  verses for  daily meditation .]


Kashinath Trimbak Telang


The first Indian to translate the Gita into English was Kashinath Trimbak Telang (1850-1893) a Sanskrit scholar of merit, an Indologist and a Judge at the Bombay High Court.  He first published the translation of the Gita in verse form during 1875. Later in 1882, his prose-translation was brought out as Vol. 8 of the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series edited by Max Muller with the title The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1882).The volume of Telang’s translation of the Gita included his translations of the Anugita* and Sanatsugatiya**.  

Kashinath Trimbak Telang was one of the only two Indian scholars invited by Max Muller to contribute to the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series; the other being Sir RG Bhandarkar. Telang’s Gita, scholarly and methodical, turned out to be amongst the more popular books in India, selling over two hundred copies (the practice of the readers of those times was to borrow books from the library than to buy). But sadly, Telang’s translation did not receive serious reviews in England. Edwin Arnold, in the introduction to his translation of the Gita wrote:’ Mr. Telang has also published at Bombay a version in colloquial rhythm, eminently learned and intelligent, but not conveying the dignity or grace of the original’.

 [* Anugita (that which follows the Gita), appears in the Ashvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata, as a sequel to the Bhagavad-Gita. It again is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. It takes place at the Pandava’s palace in Indraprastha, as Krishna was on his way back to Dwaraka after helping to restore the kingdom of Hasthinapur to the Pandavas following their victory in the war at Kurukshetra.   

**The Sānatsujātiya     appears in the Udyoga Parva   of Mahabharata as teaching imparted by the sages   Sanat-sujāta    to the blind king   Dhṛtarāṣṭra. It is a philosophical classic   , composed in five chapters (Adyāya 41-46).]

For more on the life and work of Kashinath Trimbak Telang – please read the article  by Vasant. N Naik, included under The Eminent Orientalists: Indian,European and American (pages from 79 to 91)


The Theosophists

The Theosophists came upon the Gita by about 1890s. Apart from providing explanations in theosophical terms, they highlighted the allegorical representations of the Gita. Shri T. Subba Row, an early Indian initiate into Theosophy, explained that Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the monad, Nara, the individual soul Jiva   in conjunction with Buddhi and Manas.

Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936), a member of the Bengal Theosophical Society (from 1882) and a significant member of the Theosophical Movement, in her translation of the Gita – The Bhagavad Gita or  The Lord’s Lay (1887), aimed to  create a distinctive identity for modern Hindu spirituality in the Western intellectual world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Bhagavadgita Mohini Chatterjee

William Quan Judge, in his Essays on the Gita (1890) presented an entirely allegorical interpretation of the Mahabharata. Annie Besant extended the allegory to India’s struggle for freedom. According to Besant’s interpretation, the struggle by Arjuna was “to destroy a usurper who was oppressing the land; and, it was his duty as prince, as warrior, to fight for the deliverance of his nation and restore order and peace’.  The parallel she constructed between Mahabharata war and the Indian freedom struggle came to be widely accepted; and, influenced the political stance of many leaders including Tilak. Besides, Annie Besant pointed out to the universal nature of the Gita, saying: ‘To speak of the Gita is to speak of the history of the world’.


The Gita in the twentieth century

There have also been valued translations by western scholars such as Franklin Edgerton, Robert Charles Zachner, Kees W Bolle, JAB van Buitenen and W Douglass P Hill.

However, two translations that appeared in 1935 and 1944 which brought together Indian and prominent western scholars are regarded very significant in asserting to the spiritual authenticity of the East and upholding the Universal relevance of the Bhagavad-Gita. Both translations were rich in allegorical interpretations and symbolic possibilities of the text.

These two translations, Ms. Mishka Sinha writes:

‘these two translations of the Gita reveal the influence of the inherited ideas and interpretations from the nineteenth century. Each is the product of collaborations between Indian and Western translators, and the authors of each unquestioningly accept the assumption of universal relevance that the Gita began to acquire in the period between 1880 and 1910.

Both translations were concerned with the symbolic possibilities of the text; however, the  interpretation  accompanying the second translation represents the culmination of the process begun by the literary an d allegorical interpretations of Arnold, Gandhi and the Theosophists, by turning the ordinary, surface meaning of the Gita on its head

Each could lay claim simultaneously to the spiritual authenticity of the East, and the cultural authority of the West, by bringing together Indian translators—Hindu swamis visiting the West—and prominent Western authors.’

The Geetatrans. by Shri Purohit Swami (London: Faber & Faber, 1935)

Shri Purohit Swami (1882-1946) a Hindu monk came to Britain 1931, at the instance of his Guru Shri Bhagwan Hamsa. He began with delivering a series of lectures on Indian philosophy and on Bhagavad-Gita. He became involved with British ‘spiritualists’ who helped him set up an Ashram in London. The Swami came in contact with the noted Irish poet, dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1923), William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who had a deep interest in spiritualism. He had been introduced to Hindu philosophy in 1886 through the Theosophical Society.

purohit_swami yeats

WB Yeats wrote introductions to Purohit Swami’s two books: An Indian Monk, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London, Macmillan, 1932); and, Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, The Holy Mountain, trans. by Shri Purohit Swami, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London: Faber & Faber, 1934)

At the instance of WB Yeats, Purohit Swami wrote a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita in a manner that could be understood by the British general reader. He avoided overuse of ancient Indian concepts and Sanskrit terms that might be unfamiliar to English-speakers. Yet, he managed to translate every word of the text into English.  Yeats took upon himself the task of helping the Swami publish his work. For that purpose, Yeats approached the well known publishing house the Faber & Faber, where the poet-scholar T. S. Eliot was the Editor. He was hoping that Eliot would also write an introduction which would enhance the prestige and acceptability of the Book. But, Eliot was reluctant to oblige Yeats and the Swami. Despite Eliot’s reservations, Faber took on the publication of four books by Purohit Swami, with the rider that they be either introduced by or in some way associated with the name of W.B. Yeats. However, the Book was published without an introduction by Yeats.

In 1935, the Swami’s translation of Bhagavad-Gita was published by Faber & Faber under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna (1935). The Swami dedicated the Book ‘To my friend William Butler Yeats’, on his seventieth birthday.  Thereafter, the association between Purohit Swami and WB Yeats flourished. Yeats devoted much of his last years to the publication and promotion of Purohit Swami’s works. The two worked together to produce many books of great merit. In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided an introduction. Later in 1938, they brought out the translations of Patanjali’s Aphorisms of Yoga (Faber & Faber, 1938); as also the translations of The Ten Principal Upanishads (Faber & Faber, 1938). Yeats wrote introductions for both the Books. And, Yeats included the Swami’s translations in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935.

The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, with an Introduction by Aldous Huxley (Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944)

In 1944 the Gita appeared in a translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

swami-prabhavananda christopher-isherwood

Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976) a monk of the Sri Ramakrishna Order arrived in the USA during 1923. Initially he was attached to the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. After two years, he established the Vedanta Society of Portland. In December 1929, he moved to Los Angeles where he founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930, which grew into a very influential organization.

The Swami was a learned scholar who wrote number of commentaries on Vedanta and other Indian philosophies.  He attracted the attention of several scholars like Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Frederick Manchester and Christopher Isherwood.

[ Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was an English novelist, playwright, and screen-writer. After leaving Cambridge University in 1925, Isherwood in company of his school-friend WH Auden ( 1907-1973),  who was also a poet, travelled over Europe and then on to China (1938). Isherwood, Upward, and Auden formed the early core of the Leftist literary thirties generation in England. In January 1939, Auden and Isherwood (homosexual mates)  set sail for the United States. While living in Hollywood, California, as a screen-writer, Isherwood befriended Aldous Huxley with whom he sometimes collaborated. It was through Huxley that Isherwood came into contact with Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California; and, became his disciple. With Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood made a new English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, published in 1944. 

Though Isherwood did not become a monk, he remained a Hindu for the rest of his life, serving, praying, and lecturing in the temple every week and performing many literary chores for the order, including writing a biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965). His last book, My Guru and His Disciple (1980), records his conversion to Hinduism and his devotion to Swami Prabhavananda. ]

Of the many books authored by Swami Prabhavananda, his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita,) published by M. Rodd Co, Hollywood, in 1944 is most well known. It carried an introduction with by Aldous Huxley. The Time Magazine (1945) in its review lauded the translation as’ a distinguished literary work” that was “simpler and freer than other English translations (three of which have been published in the past year)’.

Huxley’s introduction to The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, which explained the allegorical interpretations of the Gita in various layers, became as famous as the Book itself. In it, he expounded the Universal ‘perennial philosophy, of the Gita. He said: :“The Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy [for] a world at war it stands pointing, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction.”

As the Swami’s translation appeared in 1944, which was just after the end of World war II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley reread and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations. 

The other noted translations

A Philosopher’s Gita

“Every scripture has two sides,” writes Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “one temporary and perishable, belonging to the ideas of the people of the period and the country in which it is produced, and the other eternal and imperishable, and applicable to all ages and countries.”

Dr. Radhakrishnan recognizes the twin aspects of the Bhagavad Gita, a scripture that is both historical and abiding. While he acknowledges and respects the historical conditions of its composition, this modern Vedanta philosopher takes as his primary task in translating the Gita to offer “a restatement of the truths of eternity in the accents of our time.” Writing in the years immediately after World War II and the partition of British India into Pakistan and India, Radhakrishnan believes that the world’s pressing need is for the “reconciliation of mankind.” The Gita, he holds, is particularly well suited to this purpose.


The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata- A Bilingual Edition – Translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, edited by James L. Fitzgerald. The University of Chicago Press,  Chicago, 1981

A. B. van Buitenen (1928-1979), a traditional scholar-translator, was an Indologist and Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Towards the end of his rather short life he focused primarily on the study of Mahabharata.

“As an Indologist, Van Buitenen is committed to a contextual and historical reading of the Gita. He argues persuasively in his introduction that the Gita was “a creation of the Mahabharata itself,” rather than an independent work that somehow “wandered into” the epic at some later date. To make his case, he summarizes the plot to highlight Arjuna’s dilemma, which he sees as a tension fundamental to the Mahabharata as a whole. He also includes eight chapters preceding the usual eighteen of the Bhagavad Gita proper as well as the chapter after it to demonstrate the “subtle narrative weaving” that binds the Gita into the Mahabharata.”

In his introduction, Van Buitenen also locates the Gita as part of the social and religious discourse of classical India. In its own historical time of composition, he argues, the Gita addressed vital contemporary ethical, theological, and metaphysical issues. The work adapted concepts from other Indic schools of thought such as Mimamsa, Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Buddhism, and it put forward innovative new ideas carefully disguised as old ones. Van Buitenen uses his introduction to sketch the historical background necessary for the reader to view the Gita in its classical milieu. While he is certainly aware that the Gita has led a rich continuing life since that time, Van Buitenen’s emphasis is decidedly on the Gita in the time of its Indian composition.

“In his historian’s approach, Van Buitenen continues a venerable lineage in Western Indological scholarship devoted to the Bhagavad Gita. Appearing first with Wilkins and other British Orientalists of late eighteenth-century Calcutta, and taking institutional form in nineteenth-century Germany with philologists and scholars like the brothers Schlegel, the Gita has been maintained in many university settings in India, Europe, and North America by professors of Sanskrit like Van Buitenen. Their central task is to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient and classical India, especially as it was transmitted in Sanskrit texts. From Wilkins’s time on, the Gita has provided a particularly valuable and challenging window into that historical world, resulting in a steady stream of erudite translations and scholarly studies. Other noteworthy translations in the Indological lineage prior to Van Buitenen include those of Telang (1882) and Edgerton (1944). For a persistent reader, Van Buitenen’s translation and introduction offers the closest available approximation of the Bhagavad Gita in its original context.” (Source: Erenow)

His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita edited by James L. Fitzgerald and published posthumously (1981), is rated very highly by the scholars and ardent students of the Gita. His translation, based on the critical text and   studded with an in-depth scholarly introduction and many useful footnotes, is praised for its authentic presentation and illuminating clarity. It’s acclaimed for its accurate rendering and retaining the directness of the original text.

 The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) by Eknath Easwaran; The Blue Mountain centre of meditation; 1985

Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) was a scholar and a spiritual teacher, who wrote several books on meditation. He is also known for his translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada. It is said; Easwaran developed interest in the Gita under the influence of Gandhi whom he met in his young age.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is rendered in clear, beautiful English; and is easy to read. Easwaran also wrote a three volume commentary, The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, as well as a simpler commentary called Essence of the Bhagavad Gita In his Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran explains the  teachings of the Gita in a modern context and comments on the Gita’s view of the nature of reality, the illusion of separateness, the search for identity, the meaning of yoga, and how to heal the unconscious. The book views the key message of the Gita as how to resolve our conflicts and live in harmony with the deep unity of life, through the practice of meditation and spiritual disciplines.


Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (2000). “The Gita is usually thought of as a great philosophical poem,” he writes in his introduction

The main problem, he says, lies in finding a suitable verse form in English to render the Sanskrit shloka. He seeks a form that has the “dignity of formal verse,” yet is also “free and supple enough to sound like natural speech.” His choice is a loose trimeter quatrain. Each shloka is treated as a separate unit of four lines, three stressed syllables per line. By isolating individual shlokas (as most translators do) each verse can stand on its own, like pearls in a necklace, as a potential starting point for reflection and meditation. Respecting the integrity of the poem, Mitchell does not impose any of his own commentary, nor does he include annotations to the translation.

Mitchell’s translation is not the first poetic Gita in English. The legacy of literary translations began with Arnold’s charming 1885 blank-verse rendering, which made such an impact a few years later on the young Gandhi. Another distinguished literary rendering is the translation coauthored by California-based Vedanta Society teacher Swami Prabhavananda and British novelist Christopher Isherwood, published in 1944. Seeking to avoid the pitfalls of Indological translations with their “obscurity and archaic un-English locutions,” Isherwood tried to match the different types of discourse he found in the Gita with a mixture of English styles, both prose and verse, instead of sticking with a single verse form. Others have attempted to combine a scholarly attention to the Sanskrit original with a poetic rendering in English, including the recent versions by Barbara S. Miller (1986) and Laurie Patton (2006).– (Source :Erenow)


The Bhagavad-Gita by Georg Feuerstein, Brenda Feuerstein; Shambhala Publications; 2011

A more scholarly translation of the Gita comes from Georg Feuerstein. His translation with detailed notes is good for academic study. The left-hand page contains the Sanskrit in both Devanagari and transliteration, while the right-hand page contains a very literal translation, usually with several footnotes. A section in the back contains a word-by-word literal translation.

[There is also a first-ever translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into Maltese  by Dr Michael Zammit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta; published by PIN Publications, Herbert Ganado Street, Pieta, PTA 1450, Malta. The audio version,  Bhagawad Gita ta’ Wjasa, Dr Zammit’s translation is being webcast on the University of Malta’s website. Please also read Dr .Zammit’s interview with Ms. Venetia Ansel the noted scholar , writer and publisher.]


Mishka Sinha mentions that of all the translations and the commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita published between 1880 and 1910, Telang’s translation; Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial; Translations by the Theosophists; and Gandhi’s Gita are notable for the influence they exerted as also for the explanations of the universal relevance, the allegorical and symbolic significance of the text.

[ For a detailed and very learned writing on Modern Gita :Translations , please check here.]


As Erenow writes :

What is the best English-language translation of the Bhagavad Gita? That will of course depend on the reader. In the Gita, Krishna commends all those who share his teachings with others. Yet we see how this sharing of the Gita can take myriad forms. Just as different translators bring different backgrounds and agendas to their task of rendering Krishna’s message, so readers will themselves bring their own differing aims to the work. Among the great plurality of translations, embodying diverse approaches to the Gita, the reader also is called on to select a path. If Krishna is correct, all those various translational paths will indeed lead the reader to him and his words.


Let’s talk about Edwin Arnold’s translation and about Gandhi on Gita in the next part.


Continued in Part Four

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  11. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  12. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  13. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  14. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta
  15. A Companion to Translation Studies edited by Sandra Bermann, Catherine Porter
  16. The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography By Richard H. Davis 


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Posted by on October 17, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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