The Road to Macaulay: Asiatic Society and Reinvention of India's Culture

The Foundation of Asiatic Society

In discussing Warren Hastings' role in the history of Indian Education, I mentioned his sponsorship of Asiatic Society of Bengal (see the earlier post here) deserve a separate discussion. This is because the Asiatic Society of Bengal was to become the key agency through which the 'Orientalist' activities in India commenced and were carried out right until Macaulay's time. The Society played a major role in shaping the British engagement with India, and shaped, through various Research and Translation projects, concepts about Ancient India, which would not only shape Colonial Historiography, but also the thinking of Indian Nationalist leaders later on. 

Asiatic Society of Bengal was established on the 15th January 1784, and it was primarily the project of William Jones (portrait above). Jones was a Jurist trained in Oxford, who had already distinguished himself as a great legal mind. More importantly, Jones had a knack of languages, and mastered Persian and Arabic while he was a student at Oxford and had undertaken well-known translation projects (he translated Tarikh-i-Nadiri, the history of Nadir Shah, from Persian to French). Jones had compiled a grammar of Persian language and published it in 1771. He was reported to have mastered a total of twenty-eight languages, including Sanskrit and Bengali, which he learnt after entering East India Company's employment - primarily for financial reasons - and reaching Calcutta in 1783.

Jones saw himself not as a linguist but an explorer of oriental cultures and civilisations, and his enthusiasm and scholarship complemented the need of the emerging empire - its 'investigative modalities' as Bernard Cohn called it - suitably well. The Asiatic Society would bring together men of different talents and interests in the project of 'discovering India'. And, this underlined a particular approach to empire on whose service these remarkable men dedicated their labour - one that revolved around governing India through its own laws and customs by codifying and transforming those laws of customs in a new way.

Society's History and Achievements

William Jones spent the rest of his life - he was not to see England again and would die in Calcutta in 1794 - exploring Indian history, literature and culture. Jones would go on to translate Kalidasa's Sakuntala and also the Code of Manu,  the foundational legal code of the Hindus. He would also lay the foundation of modern Comparative Philology, exploring the similarities of Greek and Sanskrit and making conjectures about the existence of a common linguistic family across India, Central Asia and Europe (what we would call Indo-European languages today). 

His colleagues at the Asiatic Society would make many remarkable archaeological discoveries, and these would form the basis of the modern understanding of the ancient Indian history. These were important contributions to historical understanding, at a time such knowledge was presumed to be lost in the middle of half a century of political uncertainties in India, decline of central authority and rise of the regional war lords, and general Indian tradition of oral transmission of historical knowledge. Asiatic Society's work periodized Indian history by connecting names and places with historical information recorded by the Greeks and established, from Archaeological findings, remarkably accurate information about various Indian dynasties and their rulers.

After Jones' death in 1794, the leadership of the society passed on to H T Colebrooke, who would preside over a remarkable 'Sanskrit Renaissance'. Colebrooke's work on the Vedas and other classic Sanskrit texts would help create 'definitive' versions of the key Sanskrit texts, and 'reviving the ancient language single-handedly'. One can claim with justification that this, and later work by other members of Asiatic Society, would help the nineteenth century Hindu religious reforms and revivals. His leadership of the Society saw a period of remarkable activities, of which the following extract from a history of the Society gives a sense of the varied work undertaken:

"Between 1794 and 1815, James Blunt wrote about the Qutb Minar, Goldingham about the Elephanta Caves and Mallet on the Buddhists caves of Ellora. Jonathan Duncan drew the attention of Indologists to Sarnath, about which little was then known, and William Hunter highlighted the importance of the astronomical structures known as the Jantar Mantar. J. D. Patterson tried to fathom the deeper meaning of the stories of Indian mythology, Colin Mackenzie made a breakthrough in the study of Jainism, and John Malcolm made one of the earliest studies of the history of the Sikhs and their religion. Captain James Hoare's study of the inscriptions on the lat of Firuz Shah brought to light the personality of Prithviraj Chauhan, and William Price discovered for Indian history the Chandela dynasty of Bundelkhand." (Kejariwal, Pp 223 - 4)

Asiatic Society would continue to make significant scholarly contributions in the Nineteenth Century, particularly under two very able Secretaries, Horace Hayman Wilson (Secy: 1815 - 1832) and James Prinsep (Secy : 1832 - 8). Wilson, a major scholar, discovered and translated Rajtarangini, the major historical work of Ancient India, and through his studies of the religious sects of the Hindus, wrote one of the first social histories of India. Prinsep is best remembered for deciphering Kharaosthi and Brahmi scripts and for his studies in Indian numismatics. Together with their colleagues undertaking a range of research projects in the ancient and medieval India, these two very able secretaries made Asiatic Society a major institution of scholarly work in India.

My intention is not to create a comprehesive list of all of Asiatic Society's achievements, which will be too numerous over its 234 years of history, but to point out what kind of work they undertook, in order to attempt an analysis of its legacy.


The Asiatic Society of Bengal is at once forgotten and contested in Indian History. The question of motive overshadowed the judgement of its contribution. That the work of Asiatic Society was supported by, and was an integral part of, the Colonial Project is apparent: The visions of Indian History and Culture that the Society constructed shaped the imagination of the later Colonists. Yet, the particular approach to Colonial Administration that the Society's work came to represent - one of accommodation and adjustment with Indian traditions and cultures - would be superseded as the economic superiority of industrial Britain and moral ascendancy of abolitionists change the vision of the Empire. At the time of Macaulay's minutes in 1835, Prinsep might still be doing his groundbreaking work on Indian scripts, but the approach to Indian knowledge and traditions have changed irreversibly.

Asiatic Society's work also impacted the Hindu religion and the imagination of Indian nation. Whether one should celebrate this, however, is a matter of perspective. For the Society's work provided the Historiography that the Indian nationalists generally accepted, and its texts provided a 'scriptural uniformity' that the Hindu religion previously lacked. However, ascribing the credit of creating national awareness to English Colonists is a difficult thing to do; in fact, doing so is to precisely agree with the imperial historians, who maintained that Indians did not have a national awareness before the arrival of the British. Hence, Indian national historiography is largely silent about the contributions of the Society, and the credit of the renewal of interest in Ancient India were generally given to a later, nineteenth century, generation of Indian writers, religious figures and historians.

Indeed, it is possible to view the Society's work, as Marxist, Subaltern and Post-colonial scholars have come to do, as a producer of 'colonial knowledge'. The Society helped create a particular vision of Indian culture, literature and tradition, applying the 'gaze' that Edward Said accused Europeans of doing, and transforming Indian history and culture accordingly. Producing the kind of work that the Society did invariably meant privileging some information over others, telling history in a particular way and not in another, and applying the Enlightenment ideas and value judgements on a pre-modern society: These were their contribution to the Colonial Architecture, in which such knowledge played in important role. 

 In conclusion, Asiatic Society's work in India is important for our narrative for two specific reasons. First, Asiatic Society represents a deliberate British attempt to codify and transform Indian knowledge - a particular attempt that would be challenged by Macaulay. And, second, Asiatic Society's work underlines the close relationship between the emerging Colonial State and its control over knowledge, something that would continue unchallenged for over a century, till an Indian challenge - of re-imagining their past - would come at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It is perhaps apt, therefore, to conclude this post by quoting a contemporary writer, Milan Kundera, "Those who control the past control the future; who controls the present controls the past".


The standard book on Asiatic Society's history remains O P Kejariwal's The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past 1784 - 1838 (Oxford University Press, Delhi; 1988). I found Bernard Cohn's Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British In India (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersy, 1988) deeply insightful on various aspects of production and dissemination of Colonial Knowledge. David Kopf's British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773 - 1835 (University of California Press, Berkley, 1969) presents a different and very helpful perspective. Christopher Bailey's point about scriptural unity and nineteenth century revival of religions can be found in his Empires of Religion, Chapter 9 (Pp 325 - 365) of The Birth of the Modern World 1780 - 1914 (Blackwell, Oxford, 2014).  



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