Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Sanskrit Pandits Recall Their Youth: Two Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century Bengal

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Sanskrit Pandits Recall Their Youth: Two Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century Bengal

Article excerpt

This essay calls attention to two little-known autobiographies written by Sanskrit pandits in late nineteenth-century Bengal. These texts, by Isvaracandra Vidyasagara (1820--91) and Girisacandra Vidyaratna (1822--1903), are here examined in light of two overarching concerns. First, an attempt is made to justify treating these texts as examples of autobiographical writing, a status some have been unwilling to grant them. In this connection, the problems of reading autobiographies in non-Western or colonial contexts are also addressed. Second, an interpretation of the two texts is offered which suggests they represent two different responses to profound changes taking place in colonial Bengal. Despite their similar family backgrounds and life trajectories, Vidyasagara writes in a mode of intentional self-construction, while Vidyaratna writes in a mode of nostalgic recollection.

DURING THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH centuries, Bengal witnessed widespread changes in everything from landholding, agriculture, and commerce to folk arts, literature, and religion. Calcutta was the epicenter for many of these changes, and aftershocks from developments there were to rumble throughout the Indian empire and beyond. By now the names of key players from this period--orientalists like Sir William Jones and Horace Hayman Wilson, missionaries like William Carey and Alexander Duff, and indigenous reformers like Rammohan Roy and Keshub Chunder Sen--are widely known. Their lives and the impact of their work have been widely studied. But there is a class of men from this period who have hitherto not received the same degree of attention. Like those listed above, these men also contributed to the forces of change and controversy that were to have such a profound impact on the development of the modern society of the subcontinent. These men were the Sanskrit pandits of Bengal.

In pre-colonial times, pandits exercised a virtual hegemony over the creation, transmission, and exposition of brahmanical learning. Their schools were the schools for shastric learning and debate; their methods were the methods for interpreting Sanskrit literature and for adjudicating matters of Hindu social, legal, and religious practice; their norms of aesthetics, rhetoric, and rational argumentation were the norms that guided playwrights, poets, and philosophers. However, the advent of colonial rule in India was to see this situation change rapidly.

In less than a century, these pandits saw the long-cherished preeminence of Sanskrit called into question sometimes rancorous debates over language and government policy; they watched as familiar patterns of instruction practiced for centuries in village tols and catuspathis gave way to new educational institutions and foreign curricula; they felt the sting of European polemic against their cherished philosophies and theologies; they witnessed the dawn of the age of printing in India and all that went with it: missionary translation projects, orientalist scholarship, print journalism, widespread pamphleteering, and the dawn of tract-driven social controversies. Taken together, these changes transformed existing notions of reason, canon, literature, text, scholarship, and public debate.

And yet it would be misleading to imply that Bengal's pandits merely sat on the sidelines observing all these changes. On the contrary, they participated directly in them--often in ways that are only beginning to come to light. (1) As Calcutta became flush with schools, colleges, and universities, pandits from around Bengal and across India were drawn there in search of employment. Some were recruited by the early orientalists. Under Wilson alone, pandits from as far afield as Gujarat and Banaras found positions at the Calcutta Government Sanskrit College. (2) Other pandits found work with the missionaries, assisting them in their quest to master India's many languages so as to propagate the Gospel. Still others gravitated to the city with uncertain plans; perhaps to continue the tol-based teaching so common in the villages, perhaps to work as court pandits for the city's indigenous nouveaux riches, perhaps even to abandon their hereditary vocation altogether in the hope of earning better pay as clerks or in terpreters in foreign trading firms. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.