Charles-Louis Montesquieu and the Indo-European Myth #2

Continuation of the previous part…

In Europe, in Middle Ages, consensus was reached that descendants of Shem populated Asia and formed social strata of Priests; Ham gave rise of African population and class of Servants; while Europeans and Nobility caste trace their ancestry to Japheth. Indian forefathers are not mentioned in Genesis, however, Muslim scholars classified Indians as descendants of Ham (while Japhethians were Turks, Slavs and Chinese). As well Muslim sources name India as a cradle of all civilization, science and wisdom (Trautmann 1997 53-54).

When Catholic missionaries started opening missions in South-Eastern Asia in sixteen century, they quickly realized that the Muslim view of India was not unfounded. Agostinho de Azevedo, Portuguese Jesuit, using notes taken in 1580s, prepared a report for Philip III Estado da India, which includes summary of Hindu religion, taken from Shaiva Sanskrit and Tamil texts. In 1608 Antonio Rubino, Italian Jesuit from missionary at the court of Vijayanagara (a south Indian empire), prepared a brief tractate Relatione d’alchune cose principali del regno de Bisnaga on history and religion of the country. The following year, his colleague Jesuit Jacome Fenicio wrote a substantial account of Hinduism Livro da seita dos Indios Orientais, based on Malayan material (Rubies 2002 315). Roberto de Nobili, Italian Jesuit missionary, the same year was writing back to Rome:

We imagine that these people are ignorant, but I assure you that they are not. I am actually reading one of their books in which I learn philosophy anew almost in the same terms as I studied it at Rome, though of course, their philosophy is fundamentally different from ours.

(Zupanov 1993 126)

Being from aristocratic family and very well educated Roberto de Nobili saw ineffectiveness of the early crude attempts of proselytizing India, which did not take in account local culture, religion and philosophy.  He came up with idea of Accomodato – strategy which have being followed by Jesuits ever since. This idea called for adjusting Christian ideas and philosophy to local customs, and not only to translate Christian tractates to native languages, but masquerade them into usual for natives form – for example posing Bible as a lost Veda. The strategy of course required intensive and detailed study of the local languages and culture to make the infusion of Christian ideas organic and smooth.

A century later, that was still a core of the missionary practice, as wrote Jesuit of the Tibet Mission Marco della Tomba:

One should always consider that a new Missionary, even one of good talent and spirit, can bring very little fruit to the Mission before four or five years have elapsed. One year is scarcely enough to learn the language well enough to make oneself understood, but in order to get oneself then in a state to be able to expose oneself to the confessional, to the pulpit, and to the circles of those people in order to talk to them about their religion, respond to their arguments, understand their books that are all written in an uncommon language, all in verse, full of parables and allegories, certainly this cannot be done until after a long study of the language and practice with their maxims and customs.

Basis for the mission work became depending on linguistics, and the first Sanskrit grammar was written in seventeen century by Jesuit Heinrich Roth (1620-1668) (Lorenzen 2006 119).

With the death of Saint Francis Xavier in 1652, leader of the Portuguese proselytizing movement in India, fury of the effort decelerated and stalled. Portuguese and Italian Jesuits gave way to their brethren of another country expressing interest in the region – France.

In 1687 one of the first French Jesuits, Pere Tachard brought to Paris and presented to Louis XIV a Sanskrit manuscript containing rules for the computation of the longitudes of the Sun and the Moon. Pere Bouchet, who arrived in province Malabar in 1688, and whose writings found its way into Lettres Edifiantes, opens discussion on the topic which could have been classified now as a comparative philosophy: having found common themes about the soul immortality of Indian and Pythagorean thought, Bouchet analyses back to back teaching about the soul of Indians, Pythagoreans, Platonists and Catholics. Especial interest among Jesuits, which Bouchet himself shared, had the Indian cosmology and its analogies of the Biblical Flood. Getting reaffirmed by other distant sources, in particular Indian, these Biblical stories would gain a scientific significance, and this comparative “Floodology” would allow estimating dates of the beginning of the human history (Raina 1999 PE32).

Later in eighteen century, Francesco Maria da Tours compiles first Hindustani dictionary (Lorenzen 2006 119), and Pere Pons compiled another Sanskrit grammar and wrote treatise on Sanskrit poetics. Pere Calmette discovered similarity between the Indian and European zodiac (Raina 1999 PE32).

Giuseppe Maria of the Tibet Missionary writes in 1751 a long text on Hindustani targeting the local audience and named Dialogue between a Christian and a Hindu about Religion, and compiles yet another Hindustani dictionary in 1763. In 1767 Maria translates Sanskrit texts Adhyata-ramayana and Vishnu-purana (Lorenzen 2006 120-1).

Pere Coeurdoux in 1768 (eighteen years before the Jones’s Calcutta lecture) writes to Academie des Inscriptions about similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and describes it in terms of Japhetian kinship, carefully analyzing, and then refuting idea of the borrowings into Sanskrit in times of Alexander’s the Great conquest:

The Samskroutam language is that of the ancient Brahmes; they came to India from the north of that country, from Caucasia, from Tartary, which had been peopled by descendants of Magog. Of the son of Japhet, some spoke Greek, some Latin, still others Sanskroutam. Before their total separation, their languages were somewhat mixed because of the communication they had among each other; and there remain vestiges of that ancient intercourse, in the common words which still exist, and of which I have reported a part.

(Trautmann 1997 54)

However, by the beginning of the second half of eighteen century, after the Bengal conquest by Britain, influence of France in region diminishes, and rising power of Britain brings new players into the Postdiluvian-Oriental-Aryan discourse.

To be continued…


Trautmann, Thomas R., Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

Rubies, Joan-Pau, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: Soth India through European Eyes, 1250-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

Dhuriv Raina, French Jesuit Scientists in India: Historical Astronomy in the Discourse on India, 1670-1770, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 5 (Jan. 30 – Feb. 5, 1999), pp. PE30-PE38

Lorenzen, David N., Marco della Tomba and Brahmin from Banaras: Missionaries, Orientalists, and Indian Scholars, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb., 2006), pp. 115-143

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