The Image of India & Hinduism in William Jones’ “Hymns” to Hindu Deities

Bidhan Mondal, Kalyani University in West Bengal, India


William Jones’ hymns to Hindu deities of India use ideas of translation and originality in order to provide a poetic and cultural space where the hymn syncretically demonstrates both a British and Hindu religious exegesis. A few fundamental questions arise: how was Hinduism represented? Who was representing it? From what sources were the poets gaining their impressions and understanding of religion? In what way were religion, in general, and the poet’s representation of it specifically received? Jones’s importance in my thesis lies in the fact that it would be utterly impossible to answer any one of these questions without mentioning his name and giving some account of his life and works. Drawing upon Michael J. Franklin’s Sir William Jones: Selected Prose and Poetical Works and Romantic Representations of British India, I want to emphasise Jones’ syncretic tendencies within the multi-cultural and multi-faith environment of metropolitan India rather than in the ideals of European Enlightenment.

[Key Words: Hinduism, Sir William Jones, politics and poetics of representation]

During the early nineteenth century India’s sudden geopolitical and economic importance led to a burgeoning interest in and study of its culture by British and Europeans alike – particularly on the subject of religion. As Joyti Mohan writes, because of his stature in Europe’s intellectual community, Voltaire’s writings on India were widely read and they enhanced the charm of Hinduism to begin its ascent into the intellectual mainstream of European Enlightenment thinking. There have been a number of worthy critical studies investigating India’s influence on the British literature. For example, Raymond Schwab’s pioneering The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880 (1958) first broached the subject by recognising and identifying the frequency with which India was a topic of literary concern. Schwab argues that “The Orient served as alter ego to the Occident” (Schwab 43), suggesting the way in which the two complemented each other, rather than competed with – or controlled – the other. As Dalrymple writes:

Beneath the familiar story of European conquest and the Rule in India, and the imposition of European conquest and the rule in India, and the imposition of European Ways in the heart of Asia….the Indian conquest of the European imagination…widespread cultural assimilation and hybridity: what Salman Rushdie-talking of modern Multiculturalism has called Chutni-fication. Virtually all Englishmen in India at this period Indianised themselves To some extent (Dalrymple 123).

Thus it is relevant to contextualise Jones’ Hymns within a framework of bi-lateral and unilateral assumptions of postcolonial theory laid out in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which views Jones as the leading architect of Britain’s imperial ideology. Warren Hastings, the governor general of East India Company, implemented a policy of ruling India on its ancient laws, according to their own ideas and prejudices. From these policies, Hastings led a sustained effort to fund and support attempts of the British to learn, read and translate Hindu mythology into English. In 1787 “The Monthly Review” exhibits such an attitude when they write that

An acquaintance with Indian literature in general might have the most beneficial     effects. It might even tend to redeem the national character, by teaching Englishmen to consider the nation of India as men, as beings entitled by heaven with the same facilities, the same talents, and the same feeling with themselves (The Monthly Review :35).

In the midst of such colonial attitude, Indian literature like the Bhagabat Geeta offered not only a way to learn about another religion and culture, but also redeem the national character from these offences in the fostering of a cross-cultural appreciation of each other’s common humanity–one sanctioned by both a British and Hindu “Heaven”. These policies find their greatest success once Jones took up the study of Sanskrit, Hindu mythology and Hindu folklore. The eleven years Jones spent in Calcutta were the most productive of his literary life, which almost singularly centred on introducing, explaining, and representing Hinduism to a British and European audience, as exemplified primarily by his composition of nine hymns to Hindu deities. While other missionaries, such as William Carey, undermined Sanskrit as “sacred nothings”, Jones prided himself upon saying that he spoke “the language of Gods” (Jones 167). In this way Jones becomes synonymous with Hinduism in the Romantic period. Sir William Jones was the pioneer of philosophical studies in India and was, finally, the first Englishman to respond poetically to the Indian setting. He is the first Westerner to render Kalidasa’s Sakuntala into English and make the Occident aware of the richness of Sanskrit to Anglo-Indian literature.

The translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam by Sir William Jones in 1789 was an epoch-making event in the history of cultural relations between India and the West. Indeed its impact on history has been more profound and far reaching than even that of the French. Jones had unveiled the vistas of a new world of ideas—a new era in Oriental scholarship and historical writing as well as a new movement in the spheres of comparative philology, comparative literature, English poetry, Sanskrit poetry and Indian historical writing (Ranganathan 3).

Jones’s nine hymns to Hindu deities, which belong to the late eighteenth century, are addressed to Camdeo, Prakriti, Indra, Surya, Lakshmi, Narayana, Saraswati and Ganga. His first hymn, addressed to Camdeo, is the first view of Hindu Mythology presented in English poetry. I shall prove his mastery in intermingling East and West by suggesting that the Sanskrit word ‘Dipaka’—one of the several names of Kama—and the English word ‘Cupid’ have an original linguistic connection. The Hindu god Camdeo is no doubt the counterpart of the Grecian Eros and the Roman Cupido, but in Hindu mythology a peculiar course of events attends his life and attributes so that his very name rouses romance and beauty. This hymn recalls to one’s mind the description of love full of romantic exuberance in Swinburne’s Atlanta in Calydon. His second and third hymns are addressed to Prakriti in her two aspects: Durga and Bhabani. “Prakriti” is the cause of creation and the means of discrimination, and “Purusha”, the manifestation of the Parabrahman, assumes the body and experiences the dualities of the world: good and bad, joy and sorrow, which are the contrivance of Prakriti as “Maya”. The theme of the first of these two hymns, “The Hymn to Durga, is borrowed from Kalidasa’s Kumarsambhavam in Sanskrit. The second hymn, “The Hymn to Bhabani, manifests the destructive side of the Mother, the third hymn is devoted to her benevolent aspect. The conception of a female power or “Sakti” being responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe is not uncommon in both Eastern and Western mythologies. Sri Aurobindo assigns The Mother the attributes of Wisdom, Strength, Harmony, and Perfection. Robert Graves similarly conceives of an all-powerful, all-pervading Female power in his poems, while Swinburne depicts the picture of “Aphrodite” like that of Bhabani: at the emergence of these goddesses the whole universe leaps into life (Mukherjee 87)…Access Full Text of the Article

Related Contents

“I am black, but my soul is white”: the Christian Neophyte and his Alienation in 19th Century Anti-c...
views 2074
Ayusman Chakraborty, Jadavpur University, India Abstract This article studies how the Christian convert is represented in three nineteenth century A...
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On Google Plus