Published in Journal of The Asiatic Society, Volume XXVII, Number 1, 1985, pp. 78-85.
The early Indians having left no written accounts of their achievements; the political and cultural history of the most important period has to be reconstructed on the basis of material gathered from various sources. The institution to which we are exceptionally indebted for the great progress we have made in this work is the Asiatic Society of Calcutta and no less than to the remarkable man who is the founder - the great Sir William as a far-sighted Indologist. Its foundation in Calcutta was followed by the rise of similar other societies of various types elsewhere. The Society’s publications solved innumerable problems including the decipherment of Brahmi and Kharoshthi alphabets and elucidation of innumerable epigraphical and numismatic records had considerably widened our knowledge of the history and literatures of India.
A front-rank product of a celebrated European University and a master of many languages including Arabic, Persian and Hebrew in his early youth, Sir William exhibited exceptional wisdom in organizing the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta on the 15th of January 1748 only a few months after his arrival here as a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court, on the 25th of September, 1783. We are told, during his voyage to India, while on the Arabian sea, the recollections of the ‘eventful histories and agreeable fictions of the Eastern World’ in his mind urged him to start such a Society for the ‘enquiry into the history and antiquities, arts, sciences and literatures of Asia’, the object of the Asiatic Society being later shared, so far as the Archaeological, Anthropological, Geological and others as well as the Societies like the Numismatic, Archaeological, Epigraphical, Linguistic and similar other bodies, both groups having their own museums, libraries, and publication schemes in many cases. A part of the work was undertaken sometime afterwards by the Indian universities also. The functions of the Asiatic Society, which may be regarded as the mother of the other institutions, are, however, still going on. The original collection of coins preserved in the Society was handed over to the Indian Museum, Calcutta for preservation and cataloguing. These coins were noticed in the valuable catalogues, no less than four volumes of which covering the early, medieval, and late periods edited by the eminent numismatists like V.A. Smith, H.N. Wright and J. Allan were published for the benefit of the students of history.
A few stone inscriptions like the Bairat edict of the Maurya emperor Asoka (c. 272-232 B.C.) was also presented to the Museum; but a large number of copper-plate grants are still preserved in the Society’s collection.
Besides the foundation of the Asiatic Society, Sir William deserves our great respect for two other things. In his inaugural lecture at the Society’s third Annual Meeting in 1786, he declared how the Persian language of Asia and the Greek, Latin, Celtic and some other languages of Europe are closely related to Sanskrit so that they appear to have developed out of the same source language of antiquity and that the ancestors of the speakers of all of the above languages may have originally lived somewhere in the same territory and spoken the said source language in olden times. This led to a significant change in the historians’ approach towards the history of a great section of the human race. Again, the publication of Sir William’s English translation of the Sanskrit drama Sankuntala by Kalidasa in the year 1789 made the European elite conscious and respectful towards the antiquity and greatness of the literature and civilization of India.
The publication of research papers in the Society’s periodicals as well as the publication of a series of valuable works in several oriental languages are the two pillars on which the fame of the great Society was finally to stand. From the very beginning it was having weekly meetings in order to offer opportunities to learned men to read original papers and was inviting authors to send their valuable writings for publication towards the end of each year. Thus, a number of interesting papers were included in Vol. I of the Asiatick Researches, which appeared in 1788 while five more volumes, appeared by the end of 1797 and all of them were warmly greeted by lovers of oriental culture all over the world. This periodical was divided into two parts, viz., Letters and Sciences. However, its publication was stopped after the appearance of Vol.XX in 1839.
In the meantime, the first issue of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal was published in March 1832 under the supervision of James Prinsep with a preface wherein we are told that the Journal was meant ‘to give publicly to such oriental matter as the antiquarian, the linguist, the traveller, and the naturalist may glean in the ample field open to their industry in this part of the world, and as far as means was to permit, to the progress of the various sciences at home, specially such as are connected in any way with Asia’. The Journal was also divided into two parts - Letters and Sciences, in 1865 as in the case with the Asiatick Researches; but said arrangement was discontinued in 1905 though the same was revived once again in 1935. The first series of the Journal consisted of seventy-four volumes, Vol. I (1832) to LXXIV (1904). The second series of thirty volumes were published as the Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. I (1905) to Vol. XXX (1934). In September 1934, arrangement was made to publish the New Monthly called ‘Advance Proceedings and Notices’ which was discontinued in 1936, but it reappeared in 1946 as Monthly News Bulletin. Previously separate volumes of the proceedings appeared for the years from 1865 to 1904. So far as the earlier period was concerned, a précis of the Proceedings was included in the Journal since the start in 1832 while similar précis for the years 1829 to 1831 had appeared in J.D. Herbert’s monthly Journal entitled Gleanings in Science. In the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal relating to the period from years 1893 to 1904, a section dealing with anthropology, ethnology and folklore was added. The Numismatic Supplement appeared in the Journal (Letters) from 1910 to 1938 while the feature entitled Bibliographical Supplement was introduced in it in 1950.
The second series was called Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, consisted of thirty volumes appearing in 1905 (Vol.I) to 1935(Vol. XXX). It was also known as the ‘New Series’.
The twenty-five volumes of the third series of the Journal in both Letters and Science sections started with Vol. I in 1935 and ended with Vol. XXV in 1959. In the earlier volumes up to Vols. XVI (1950)theperiodicalwas named Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal while from Vol. XVII (1951) the name of the periodical was changed to Journal of Asiatic Society with the omission of the words Royal and of Bengal. With the start of the fourth series with its Vol. I in 1960, we notice the abolition of the division of the periodical into the Letters and Science Sections. Vol. XXVII (1985) of this series is going to be published. Thus, the Society has so far published no less than 74+30+25+27=156 volumes of its Journal besides the other periodicals mentioned above and some more which we have not yet mentioned. These include Memoirs, Year-books and others.
The famous Bibliotheca Indica series of the Society contains original texts of important works of oriental literatures as well as translations of such works into English and also grammars, lexicons, bibliographies and studies. The old series of this publication was started in 1849. The old series published 265 issues and the new series nearly 1600 issues, the two series making about 300 separate works in various languages including Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Rajasthani, Kashmiri, Hindi, Bengali, Tibetian, Kui, Arabic and Persian. The large number of the Catalogues of Manuscripts, published by the Society, are also very valuable books of reference.
The Asiatic society was started by Europeans and remained primarily a European institution for many years. A large number of Europeans used to take exceptional interest in society’s activities and contributed papers to its periodicals. Seventy papers from the pen of the great James Prinsep, who succeeded in reading the Early Brahmi inscriptions of the Maurya emperor Asoka (c. 272-232 B.C.) appeared in the Society’s periodicals within 14 years between 1825 (Asiatick Researches, Vol. XV) and 1838 (Journal, Vol. VIII). Among the most prolific contributors of papers to the Society’s Journal may be counted Brian Houghton Hodgson who was the author of no less than 122 papers and notes appearing between 1825 (Researches, Vol. XVI, pp. 409-78) and 1841 (Journal Vol. X, p. 171), and Henry Piddington who published eighty papers between 1829 (Researches,Vol. XVIII, pp. 171 ff.) and 1858 (Journal,Vol.XXVII,pp.177 ff.). European interest continued till the earliest part of the present century when D.C. Phillott published no less than 86 papers and notes in the Journal during the short period between the years 1906 and 1911.
Princep wrote on various subjects: but his primary interest was in Numismatics, Epigraphy and Paleography. The coins on which he wrote were mostly Graeco-Bactrian, Indo-Greek or Indo-Scythian. Out of the papers, the following ones related to the decipherment of the Early Brahmi script in which the Asokan edicts were written: 1) ‘Note on the Facsimile of Inscriptions from Sanchi near Bhilsa, taken for the Society by Capt. Ed. Smith, Engineer; and on the Drawings of the Buddhist Monument presented by Captain W. Murray, at the meeting of the 7th June (5 Pl.)’ ; 2) ‘Interpretation of the most ancient of the Inscriptions on the Pillar called the Lat of Feroze Shah, near Delhi, and of the Allahabad, Radhia ; and Mathia Pillar, or Lat Inscriptions which agree therewith’ ; 3) ‘Further Note on the Lat or Silastambha Inscriptions from Various Sources’ ; 4) ‘Discovery of the name of Antiochus the Great, in two of the edicts of Asoka, king of India’;5)’On the edicts of Piyadasi, or Asoka, the Buddhist monarch of India, preserved on the Girnar rock in Gujarat Peninsula, and on the Dhauli rock in Cuttack, with the discovery of Ptolemy’s name therein’; 6)’Examination of the Separate Edicts of the Aswatama Inscription of Dhauli in Cuttack’. See Journal, Vol. VI-VII,1837 and 1838.
The person, who succeeded in deciphering the Late Brahmi writing of the Gupta age, which helped the determination of the value of some letters of the Early Brahmi of Asokan Inscriptions, was Charles Wilkins. He first studied the Munghyr copperplate inscription of king Devapala (c. 810-45 A.D.) and the Badal (Dinajpur District) pillar inscription of king Narayanapala (c.861-917 A.D.) and later the Barabar and Nagarjuni Cave inscriptions of Maukhari Anantavarma (c.5th -6th century A.D.). See.1) ‘A Royal Grant of Land, engraved on a copper-plate, bearing date twenty-three years before Christ and discovered among the ruins of Mongueer. Translated from the original Sanskrit, with remarks by Sir W. Jones’; 2)’ An inscription on a Pillar near Buddal, translated from the Sanskrit, with remarks by Sir W. Jones’; 3) ‘Two Inscriptions from the Vindhya Mountains. Translated from the Sanskrit.’ See Researches Vols. I-II, 1788 and 1790.
Besides Christian Lassen’s two valuable papers, ’Objects of Research in Afghanistan’ and ‘Points in the History of the Greek and Indo-Scythian Kings in Bactria, Cabul and India as illustrated by deciphering the ancient legends on their coins’ (Journal, Vols. VIII-IX,1839-1840).
We have the 27 papers of Alexander Cunningham who had varied interest, the first one of the papers being styled ‘Correction of a Mistake regarding some of the Roman Coins found in the Tope at Mahikyala opened by M. Court’ (ibid., Vol. III, 1834), while the last ‘ Relics from Ancient Persia in Gold, Silver and Copper’, covering 43 pages of Vols. L and LI (1864 and 1865; cf. Proceedings of 1881-83). Cunningham’s most important contribution to epigraphical study is found in two papers on the ‘Bactro-Pali Inscription from Taxila’ (Vols. XXXII-XXXIII), while among the papers on numismatics the most valuable are the coins of the Indo-Bactrians and Indo-Scythians including the counterfeit ones (Vols. IX, XI, XIV, and XXIII) and those of the Buddhist Satraps with Greek inscriptions and of the nine Nagas (Vols. XXIII and XXXIV).
However, there was an attempt to associate the Indians with the Society’s activities and because several European scholars had knowledge of the Persian language, a number of Muslim authors were encouraged to contribute papers, their translations being published in the Asiatick Researches. Thus, we have Ali Ibrahim Khan’s ‘On the Trial by ordeal among the Hindus’ (Vol. I, 1788, pp. 889 ff.),’ At’har ali Khan’s ‘On the Baya or the Indian Gross Beak’ and ‘On the Care of Elephantias’ (Vol. II, 1790,pp.109-10 and 149 ff.) and some others. The Hindus were also likewise drawn to the academic activities of the Society. Kishenkant Bose’s article translated and published in Asiatick Researches, Vol. XV,1825, was one of the few papers from the pen of Hindu writers falling in the same category. Among the early Hindu contributors to the Society’s periodicals, mention may be made of Ramlochan Pandit (Researches,Vol. I ,1788),Radhakanta Sarman (ibid.),Ram Comul Sen (Journal, Vol. II 1833) and Kamalakanta Vidyalankar (ibid..,Vol. VI, 1837). See alsoMaharajaKalikishenBahadur’s four papers appearing in the Journal Vols. I and II (1832 and 1833) and Munshi Mohan Lal’s six papers in the Journal, Vols. III, V, and VII (1834, 1836 and 1838). An interesting note on a scientific topic from the pen of Radhanath Sickdhar appeared in the Journal, Vol. XI, 1842. Its title is - ‘An account of the table used for reducing Barometrical Observations to 32° Fahrenheit taken in the Surveyor General’s Office, Calcutta.’
The earliest remarkably successful Indian participant in the Society’s activities was Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-91) who contributed thirty-eight papers in the Journal between 1885 (Vol. XXIV) and 1887 (Vol. LVI) besides a number of notes in the Proceedings. His brilliant example was sought to be followed by others like Hara Prasad Sastri (1853-1931) and Satis Chandra Vidyabhusan (1870-1920) who contributed respectively twenty-seven papers between 1893 (Journal, Vol. LXII) and 1929 (ibid., Vols. N.S. XXV) and twenty-four papers between 1902 (ibid., Vol.LXXI) and 1918 (ibid., Vol. XIV). There are 84 small notes to the credit of Rajendra Lal appearing in the Proceedings between 1865 and 1890 while there are 24 such by Hara Prasad between 1887 and 1916 and 4 by Satis Chandra between 1902 and 1904. In a sense, these great scholars and a large number of others received inspiration from the Asiatic Society and may be regarded as products of the Society. All three of the above scholars edited many volumes of important texts in the Bibliotheca Indica Series while Mitra and Sastri were both intimately associated with the Society in various capacities and were elected President of the Society, Mitra for one term in 1885-86 and Sastri for two terms in 1919-21. While Mitra was made the Society’s Assistant Secretary and Librarian in 1846 and remained in the Librarian’s post for ten years; Sastri collected valuable information about many hundreds of manuscripts from many regions and discovered particularly in the Darbar Library, Kathmandu, Nepal, some exceptionally important works like Sandhyakaranandin’s Ramacarita and the Caryapadas composed by various authors, both of which he published.
The Bibliotheca Indica volumes edited by Rajendra Lal Mitra include the following texts: 1) Agni Purana,3 Vols. (ed.); 2) Aitareya Aranyaka (ed.) ; 3) Astasahasrika prajnaparamita (ed.) ; 4) Brhaddevata of Saunaka (ed.) ; 5) Caitanyacandrodaya of Kavikarnapura (ed.); 6) Chandogya Upanisad (tr.); 7) Gopatha Brahmana (co-ed.) ; 8) Lalitavistara (ed.) ; 9) Do (trans.); 10) Taittiriya Aranyaka with Sayana Acarya’s commentary (ed.) ; 11) Taittiriya Brahmana with Sayana Arcarya’s commentary,6 Vols. (ed.) ; 12) Taittiriya Pratisakhya with commentary (ed.) ; 13) Vayu Purana (ed.) and 14) Yogasutra of Patajali.
Amongst Mitra’s Catalogues of manuscripts mention should be made of 1) A Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Part I - Grammar; 2) Notices of Sanskrit Mss. published under the order of the Government of Bengal, Vols. I-IX, and 3) The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal.
Mitra was also the author of a number of several works published by other agencies.
Hara Prasad Sastri’s Bibliotheca Indica Volumes include the following: 1) Ballalcarita or Anandabhatta (ed.); 2) Brhaddharma Purana (ed.); 3) Brhat- Svayambhu Purana (Ed.); 4) Saundarananda Kavya of Bhandanta Asvaghosa (ed.); 5) Six Buddhist Nyaya Tracts of Ratnakriti, Asoka and Ratnakarasanti (Ed.); 6) Syainikasastra of Raja Rudradeva of Kumaon (ed. and tr.).
Sastri’s interest was wide and his field of research was vast, and he was the most prolific author of his time. A large number of his books in English and Bengali were published by outside agencies. Among the Asiatic Society’s publications his Cittasuddhiprakarana appeared in the Journal, Vol. LXVII (1898), while Ramacarita of Sandhyakaranandin (1910) and Cathusatika of Aryaveda (1914) appeared in Memoirs, Vol. III, Nos. 1 and 8.
Amongst Sastri’s famous Catalogues, we have: 1) Catalogue of Palm-leaf and Selected Paper Mss. Belonging to the Darbar Library, Nepal, Vols. I and II; Descriptive Catalogues of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Government Collection under the Care of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Vol. I - Buddhist, Vol. II - Vedic, Vol. III - Smrti and Vol. IV - History and Geography) and in the collections of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Vol. V - Purana, Vol.VI - Vyakarana, and Vol.VII - Kavya). The last volume was in the press when Sastri died. Besides there are many volumes of Notices of Sanskrit Mss. And Report on Search for Mss.
The following works were edited by Satis Candra Vidyabhusan in the Bibliotheca Indica series: 1) Amarakosa (Sanskrit and Tibetan- ed.); 2) Amaratika-kamadhenu (ed.); 3) Avadanakalpalata of Ksemendra (Sanskrit and Tibetan - ed. with others); 2 Vols.; 4) Maitra (or Maitrayaniya)- Upanisad (re-issued); 5)Nyayabindu Index (Sanskrit and Tibetan - Compiled); 6) Nyayasarah of Bhasarvajna with Nyayatatparyadipika of Jayasimhasuri (ed.); 7)Pariksa-mukhasutra of Manikyanandin (ed.); 8) Sragdharastotra of Bhiksu Sarvajnamitra of Kasmira.
Vidyabhusan was also the author of a number of works published by outside agencies. The three persons mentioned above were all Pandits. In recent times, the scholar most intimately associated with the Asiatic Society was not only a Pandit but also the great historian, R.C Majumdar (1888-1980).
Published in Journal of The Asiatic Society, Volume XXVII, Number 1, 1985, pp. 78-85.