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The First English Gita and Four British Orientalists


· Richard Davis Bard College (Annandale, NY, United States of America)


07/26 | 15:50-16:10 UTC+2/CEST


My paper will examine the moment of the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, by the British officer Charles Wilkins working with the Brahmin pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya. In 1785 the Bhagavad Gita became a modern book for the first time, with all its paratextual accompaniments, available for dialogues with new audiences in Europe and throughout the world. My focus will be on the ways that its first audience, the British Orientalists based in Calcutta, situated the Gita. I will look at four significant figures: William Jones, Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Halhed, and Warren Hastings. I explore how each of them contextualized or framed this newly translated work While all shared some presuppositions, they differed in their fundamental perspectives on situating the work. These differences, I will argue, anticipated and helped form several of the principal directions in the reception history of the Bhagavad Gita in worldwide settings over the following two centuries. Scholars including myself have examined the first English translation, and I have examined the relationship between Wilkins and Kasinatha. There is a worthy scholarly literature on the ways this translation and other Orientalist translations provoked an “Oriental Renaissance” within European intellectual circles. But the responses of Halhed and Hastings have not formed a major part of the historical inquiry into the early reception history of the Gita, and I argue they add important dimensions to this history.