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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 46

Vedanta Paribhasa andVedanta Shikhama

Benares, Awadh, <i>c</i>.1754–5

2 texts in 18 unsewn gatherings: 97 fols and 37 fols | Manuscript written in devanagari script in ink and opaque watercolour on paper | 25.8 × 16.3 cm | RCIN 1047561

These 18 gatherings of Sanskrit text were among the earliest Hindu religious manuscripts to arrive in Britain. When presented to George III, the bundle was described as a ‘copy of the Vedam, the sacred Book of the Brahmins […] obtained in Benares, their celebrated University, in 1776’. In an accompanying letter, the donor asserted that: 

this and one obtained by Mr Verelst, when Governor of Bengal, are the only copies of the Vedam out of the hands of the Brahmins, which I know of. The surprize and concern expressed by the Brahmin who was lately in England when Mr Verelst’s copy was produced […] proved it to be a genuine Vedam, and at the same time showed the religious concealment of this sacred book amongst the hereditary priesthood of the Hindoos.[175]

The donor’s story is however erroneous in many respects. In the eighteenth century, few Europeans had any knowledge of Hinduism and labelled any sacred book ‘Vedam’ (or, more correctly, 'Veda') as if an equivalent to the Bible. It was not until the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 that Europeans began meaningful study of Sanskrit texts. The two books that make up this manuscript are in fact Vedanta texts, philosophical interpretations of the Vedas. The first, Vedanta Paribhasa, is a work by Dharmarajah Dhvarindra of c.1550 which deals with Vedanta epistemology. The opening verse reads ‘I praise the supreme joy whose body [comprises] being, consciousness, and joy, by which, through the manifestation of ignorance, there arises the elements and [things made] of the elements.’[176] In other words, the author declares that the whole of creation is due to an ignorance that conceals the Supreme Reality of being, consciousness and bliss – the fundamental basis of Vedanta doctrine. The second, Vedanta Shikhamani, is a commentary on the first text by the author’s son Ramakrishna.[177]

The manuscripts were transcribed in mid-eighteenthcentury Varanasi (Benares) in Awadh. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land in the Ganges Valley, the city was for centuries a rich and important centre for intellectual and religious scholarship. In the late sixteenth century, a Mughal historian described it as ‘the chief seat of learning in Hindustan [to which] crowds of people flock from the most distant parts for the purpose of instruction’.[178] Sixty years later, a European visitor described the city in a letter to a friend:

The town contains no colleges or regular classes, as in our universities, but resembles rather the schools of the ancients; the masters being dispersed over different parts of the town in private houses and principally in the gardens of the suburbs, which the rich merchants permit them to occupy. Some of these masters have four disciples, others six or seven, and the most eminent may have twelve or fifteen.[179]

This pandit–student system of learning changed under British administration after a proposal was approved in 1791 for a Sanskrit College to be established. Sanskrit texts were collected for the college's library and pandits employed to teach Hindu theosophy. The institution remains in the city to this day.

  • [175] RCIN 1047561.s.

    [176] Many thanks to Gavin Flood for this translation. 

    [177] Many thanks to Gavin Flood and Diwakar Acharya for their identification of and comments on these manuscripts.

    [178] Ain-i Akbari, vol. 2, p. 158.

    [179] Bernier, p. 334, quoted in Eck 1992, p. 84. 

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