Charles-Louis Montesquieu and the Indo-European Myth #4

Continuation of the previous part…

We see a striking familiarity in Mosaic themes of ethnological discourse between the New French and British Orientalism and subsequent beginnings of Indo-European studies, and the Old French (Portuguese) Jesuit Orientalism. However, despite that similarity, there exist a mystery of the high efficiency of the newborn Orientalism and Indo-European research, and impotence and ineptitude of the Jesuit research. The former discovered, translated and brought to the scientific community more literature treasures of Persia and India, and produced more cultural, linguistic and religious understanding for about thirty years, than the almost three centuries of work of the latter.

Anquetil-Dupperon published his translation of Zend-Avesta in 1771; British surgeon and then temporary Governor of Calcutta John Zephaniah Holwell’s Interesting historical events, relative to the provinces of Bengal, which were based on Persian sources and had a Persian translation of mysterious Sanskrit text never seen since Catur Veda Sastra, saw the world in 1765-71; Orientalist, writer and army officer Alexander Dow translated from Persian History of Hindustan of the Muslim Indian writer Firishtah (Muhammad Qasim Hindushah) in 1768; Orientalist and philologist Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, an early acquaintance of Jones and his colleague in the East Indian Company, translated Persian translation of Sanskrit digest of Hindu law Code of Gentoo Laws in 1776, and was first who cracked and mastered Bengal language and published in 1778 Grammar of Bengal Language. Charles Wilkins, another Jones’ colleague in Asiatick Society, translated Bhagavad Gita in 1785 and Hitopadesha in 1787. Yet another Calcutta Sanskritist Henry Colenbrooke composed Sanskrit Grammar in 1805 and published number of works on Indian Religion, Philosophy and Vedas. William Jones wrote Grammar of the Persian Language in 1771, published collection of pre-Islamic Arabian poems The Moallakat in 1782, and translation of Manusmrti (Laws of Manu) in 1796, but his most known translation is the one of the Kalidasa’s drama Shakuntala , published in Calcutta in 1789, reprinted in London in 1790, 1796, and 1805, translated into German in 1791 (which affected Goethe writing his Faustus), into French in 1803, and into Italian (from Sanskrit, from English, from French) in 1815. The journal of the Asiatick Society Asiatick researches, printed in Calcutta in 1788, became so popular in Europe, that the demand called for the pirated and official reprints in 1796, 1798, 1799, 1801 and 1806 in London, in 1795-97 German, and in 1803, 1805 French editions followed. (Trautmann 1997 30-2, Arvidsson 2000 23).

As a vivid manifestation of fruitlessness of Jesuit’s Orientalism is cited by Professor at the Center of Asian and African Studies of El Colegio de Mexico David N. Lorenzen from the essay of Marco della Tomba, where the latter argues (in 1774) that the four Vedas are just a myth, and they never existed:

Others agree – and this is the opinion that I accept as most certain, reasonable, and probable – that these 4 Vedas have never existed, at least as real Books, but that the Brahmins in order to support their assertions cite 4 Vedas as very sacred Books, but in fact no one has seen them, nor do they know where they are. This opinion has been confirmed for me by various persons…

I will say in addition that I have also seen some translations that are said to be of some Veda; I have given them for examination to various Brahmins, but none of them is in agreement that they are Vedas…

In addition, I myself had in my hands for many years all the library of the King of Bettiah, which he entrusted with me in an attack of war by Nawab Casmalican… But the 4 above-mentioned Vedas were missing… Some papers were found with various sentences that, they said, are taken from the Vedas, but these do not prove the existence of the 4 Vedas…

(Tomba cited in Lorenzen 2006 116-7)

Those words demonstrate genuine long-term interest of Jesuits in acquiring Vedas, as well as no less genuine failure to do so. Few years before Colonel Antoine Polier acquired Vedas and handed them over to William Jones, Jesuits were still debating about the existence of the Vedas, and were leaning to the opinion that they were just a legend.

What was the ‘magic’ ingredient of the New Orientalism which made it so lucky in acquiring artifacts, knowledge and fame, and which the Old one was lacking?

To be continued…


Arvidsson, Stefan, Aryan Idols: Indo-European mythology as ideology and science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006

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

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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4 Responses to Charles-Louis Montesquieu and the Indo-European Myth #4

  1. Alex Jones says:

    Why were the Jesuits interested in the Vedas?

    • Sielicki says:

      After the early period of naive proselytizing in sixteenth century, they realized that more productive would be a practice of so called Accomodato (proposed by Roberto Nobili). The practice of the careful study of the aboriginal culture and introducing Christian teaching as extension and development of native beliefs.

      Which was not completely unprecedented practice. The very Orthodox Churches (both Catholic and Eastern), then one Church, heavily built on Greco-Roman legacy when they were developing official theology during the Late Antiquity.

      • Alex Jones says:

        Thanks for your reply, the practice of incorporating Christianity via the “Accomodato” was a highly effective strategy against pagan belief system in Britain. The people all favoured an archetype of the trees, the so-called Green Man, so the churches and cathedrals had green-men depictions in them. They often built churches on top of old pagan sites, which is useful to people like me who research ancient history.

        • Sielicki says:

          Yes, it was an old and effective practice. Merging pagan gods and figures with Christian saints and prophets (thunder gods – Ilia, fertility gods – St. John), pagan festivals with Christian holidays (Solstices and Equinoxes), pagan symbols with Christian attributes (Cross as a Solunar symbol, especially obvious in the Easter Orthodox, Baltic and Celtic versions)… In case of India, Christian Bible was presented as the lost Fifth Veda…

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