The image of the cover is explained starting on page 55 of the book. A summary is given below.
The British pioneer who is widely credited for having launched the genre of Orientalism focusing on India was Sir William Jones (1746–94), the great eighteenth-century Orientalist. A marble frieze located in the chapel of University College, Oxford, reproduced on the cover of this book, shows him sitting on a chair, writing at a desk while three learned pandits are seated at his feet, wearing traditional clothing. Two are gazing down, and one is looking upward as if a bit lost. The inscription below hails Jones as the man who ‘formed a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan Laws’.
Contrary to what the sculpture suggests, it was Sir William Jones who ‘sat at the feet’ (if not literally, at least in the sense of being the pupil) of learned pandits in India for a few years to study Sanskrit grammar, poetics, logic, metaphysics and jurisprudence. He wrote letters home about how fascinating and yet how complex and daunting it was for him to learn these Sanskrit materials. Interestingly, the pandits knew their texts by heart and did not need notes or printed texts! This has been explained in Franklin (2011) which I have relied upon greatly.
As a result of this brief immersion, Jones declared himself the ‘Justinian of India’, modelling himself after the famous emperor who had codified Roman law. The truth is that he translated and interpreted into English only a tiny tip of the massive iceberg of ancient Indian literature. Yet the monument conveys the impression of Jones as ‘law-giver’ and the pandits as ‘native informants’ supplying him with raw data and taking instructions from his teachings.
The profound asymmetry of epistemic prestige in any East–West exchange of knowledge represented by this monument continues to this day; only now, it is the Western Indologists who play the role of the ‘giver of human rights’. Columbia and Harvard have replaced Oxford as the central sites for Sanskrit studies.
Sir William Jones accumulated a large number of prestigious awards and honours from the British monarchy, Oxford University and the East India Company where he was employed. He founded the first society of Orientalist scholars, and his work launched brand new fields of inquiry in the West. He is considered one of the pioneers in the field of philology. His complete works were published in thirteen volumes and covered a wide range of topics.
Under the auspices of the British East India Company, Jones was appointed judge of the Supreme Court in Bengal. He was also asked to address such questions as: Who are the Indians and what is their place in history and the world today? How do they relate to the British ruling over them? How should the British govern them? Jones’s arrival in India as the first great scholar working for the Company suddenly made such a project feasible.
Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal from 1772 to 1785, who appointed William Jones, felt that British policies in India should be made to appear consistent with Indian traditions as that would legitimize colonialism. Indians would be told that they were being governed by their own laws. This became one of the motivations for the study of Sanskrit texts; the agenda was to claim to have ‘discovered’ the laws by which Hindus ought to be governed.
Jones’s Oxford friend, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, had earlier compiled The Code of Gentoo Laws in 1776. This was the first British- sponsored compilation of a legal treatise claiming to be based on Sanskrit texts. Although it received an enthusiastic reception in Britain, it has been heavily criticized by Indians. Madhu Kishwar explains the problems:
In order to arrive at a definitive version of the Indian legal system that would mainly be useful for them, the East India Company began to recruit and train pandits for its own service. In 1772, Warren Hastings hired a group of eleven pandits to cooperate with the Company in the creation of a new digest of Hindu law that would govern civil disputes in the British courts. The Sanskrit pandits hired to translate and sanction this new interpretation of customary laws created a curious Anglo-Brahmanical hybrid. The resulting document, printed in London under the title, A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pandits, was a made-to-order text, in which the pandits dutifully followed the demands made by their paymasters. Though it was the first serious attempt at codification of Hindu law, the text was far from accurate in its references to the original sources, or to their varied traditional interpretations.
This so-called book of Hindu law was a mishmash of ideas compiled by a group of pandits from an assortment of texts. The pandits were hired by the British to serve as native informants. It failed to achieve its purpose. Therefore, Jones decided that he would personally translate the large Manusmriti text.
Jones also had a personal dilemma that he wanted to resolve by developing a book of Hindu laws. A major contradiction in his life was that on one hand he actively supported the American revolt against British imperial rule, and yet on the other, he was a key functionary in helping the British rule over Indians. Michael Franklin, in his biography of William Jones, has noted this duplicity: ‘How does a lawyer who values liberty above all end up as part of a global machine of world subjugation?’ Jones argued: ‘I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will be governed by absolute power.’