Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching

By Barbara Stoler Miller | Go to book overview

THE IMAGINATIVE UNIVERSE OF INDIAN LITERATURE

Barbara Stoler Miller


INTRODUCTION

Westerners have been "discovering" India since antiquity, when members of Alexander the Great's expedition to India in the fourth century B.C.E. recorded their responses to the exotic fabulousness of the subcontinent. This was amplified through the centuries in the writings of Arab historians and Portuguese missionaries. In the thirteenth century, the Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited India on his way to China; the account of his journey, as related to Rusticello, draws on a tradition of myths and fables that combined some fact with much fiction. The reports of Marco and others who followed him aroused some European interest in the institutions and customs of the distant peoples of Asia, but there were no serious Western attempts to study Indian literature until the last half of the eighteenth century. Sir William Jones ( 1746- 94), a judge of the British high court in Calcutta and a superb linguist, recognized the relationship of European languages to Persian and Sanskrit, rejecting the orthodox eighteenth-century view that all these tongues were derived from Hebrew, which had been garbled in the Tower of Babel. With Charles Wilkins, Jones produced the first direct translations of Sanskrit works into English: the Bhagavad Gītā, the Hitopadeśa, the Śakuntalɑ + ̄, the Gītagovinda, and the Laws of Manu. These formed the basis of early Western conceptions of ancient Indian culture and, through Schlegel and Goethe, were influential in the development of German Romanticism. The same early translations and studies that circulated in Europe were read by Emerson and Thoreau in Amer-

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