The Bhagavad-Geeta – Charles Wilkins

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Distinguished as Charles Wilkins (1749-1833) was as the first translator of The Bhagvat-Gita, Sir Charles Wilkins, was also a famous English typographer. To him goes the credit of creating, along with Panchanan Karmakar, the first Bengali typeface.

Born at Frome in Somerset in 1749, Wilkins trained himself as a printer and went to India in 1770 to join the East India Company’s service as a writer. His aptitude for learning new languages helped him to master Persian and Bengali in a surprisingly short period. With Panchanan Karmakar he got closely involved in designing the first typeface for printing Bengali. He published the first typeset book in the language to earn himself the name, ‘the Caxton of India’. He also designed the typeface for publications of books in Persian.

In 1781 he was appointed as translator of Persian and Bengali to the Commissioner of Revenue and the superintendent of the Company’s press. He successfully translated a Royal inscription in Kutila characters, hitherto indecipherable.

Being an Orientalist to the core, Wilkins lent a helping hand to Sir William Jones when he established the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784.

Patronized by Lord Warren Hastings, himself a great Orientalist and the then Governor General of British India, Wilkins moved to Varanasi to study Sanskrit under Kalinatha, a Brahmin pandit. His mission was to translate the Mahabharata, which he never completed. The most important of his translated portions of the epic was The Bhagvat-Geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon (London: Nourse, 1785).

Wilkins argued, in the ‘Translator’s Preface’ that the Gita was written to encourage a form of monotheist “unitarianism” and to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism he ascribed to the Vedas.

His translation of the Gita was soon re-translated into French (1787) and German (1802). It had a great impact on Romantic literature and on European perception of Hindu philosophy. William Blake later celebrated the publication in his painting, The Brahmins, exhibited in 1809, which depicted Wilkins and Brahmin scholars working on the translation.

With Hastings’ departure from India, Wilkins lost his main patron. He returned to England in 1786, where he married Elizabeth Keeble. In 1787 Wilkins followed the Gita with his translation of The Heetopades of Veeshnoo-Sarma, in a Series of Connected Fables, Interspersed with Moral, Prudential and Political Maxims (Bath: 1787). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1788. In 1800, he was invited to take up the post of the first director of the India House Library, which became with the passage of time the world famous ‘India Office Library’ (now British Library — Oriental Collections). In 1801 he was appointed the Librarian to the East India Company. He was nominated an examiner at Haileybury when a college was established there in 1805. During these years he devoted himself to the creation of a font for Devanagari, the “divine script”. In 1808 he published his Grammar of the Sanskrita Language. King George IV gave him the badge of the Royal Guelphic Order and a Knighthood was conferred on him in recognition of his services to Oriental scholarship in 1833.

He died in London at the age of 86.

In addition to his own translations and type designs, Wilkins also published a catalogue of the manuscripts collected by Sir William Jones.

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