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Monday, December 6, 2021

Election 161 years ago |! Boden Prof of Sanskrit at University of Oxford

In school curriculum – languages, we with curiosity heard of ‘Rama Shabdam’.  Shabda,  is the Sanskrit word for "speech sound” referring to an utterance in the sense of linguistic performance. the grammarian Katyayana stated that shabda ("speech") is eternal (nitya), as is artha "meaning", and that they share a mutual co-relation.   Sad, my acquaintance with ‘Sanskrit’ was too short lived !  .. .. BUT do you know or imagine the importance ‘Sanskrit’ was accorded by the Westerners !! – and the relevance to an election held this day, 161 years ago !

The Sheldonian Theatre, located in Oxford, England, was built from 1664 to 1669 after a design by Christopher Wren for the University of Oxford. The building is named after Gilbert Sheldon, chancellor of the University at the time and the project's main financial backer. It is used for music concerts, lectures and University ceremonies, but not for drama until 2015 when the Christ Church Dramatic Society staged a production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

This post is all about the election held on   7 December 1860 in the Sheldonian Theatre. Three special trains were run  between Didcot and Oxford that afternoon to enable passengers travelling from the west of England, and one additional train was provided between Oxford and London via Didcot in the evening. A London-bound train from the north of England called additionally at Bletchley to allow onward connections to Oxford for passengers from places such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birkenhead.  Over about five and a half hours of voting, 833 members of Congregation declared for Williams, 610 for Müller. – Guess what was this about ??

Although five men indicated their intent to seek the chair, two persons contested the election - Monier Williams and Max Müller. Williams (known later in life as Sir Monier Monier-Williams) was the son of an army officer and was born in India. He studied briefly at Balliol College, Oxford, before training at Haileybury for the civil service in India. The death of his brother in battle in India led to him to return to Oxford to complete his degree. He also studied Sanskrit with Wilson before teaching this and other languages at Haileybury from 1844 until 1858, when it closed following the Indian rebellion. He prepared an English–Sanskrit dictionary, at Wilson's prompting, which the East India Company published in 1851; his Sanskrit–English dictionary was supported by the Secretary of State for India.

The election in 1860 for the position of Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford was a competition between two candidates offering different approaches to Sanskrit scholarship. One was Monier Williams, an Oxford-educated Englishman who had spent 14 years teaching Sanskrit to those preparing to work in British India for the East India Company. The other, Max Müller, was a German-born lecturer at Oxford specialising in comparative philology, the science of language. He had spent many years working on an edition of the Rig Veda (an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns)and had gained an international reputation for his scholarship. Williams regarded the study of Sanskrit as a means to an end, namely the conversion of India to Christianity. In Müller’s opinion, his own work, while it would assist missionaries, was also valuable as an end in itself.

The election came at a time of public debate about Britain's role in India in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Opinions were divided on whether greater efforts should be made to convert India or whether to remain sensitive to local culture and traditions. Both men battled for the votes of the electorate (the Convocation of the university, consisting of over 3,700 graduates) through manifestos and newspaper correspondence. Williams laid great stress in his campaign on the intention of the original founder of the chair, that the holder should assist in converting India through dissemination of the Christian scriptures. Müller's view was that his work on the Rig Veda was of great value for missionary work, and published testimonials accordingly. He also wanted to teach wider subjects such as Indian history and literature to assist missionaries, scholars, and civil servants – a proposal that Williams criticised as not in accordance with the original benefactor's wishes. The rival campaigns took out newspaper advertisements and circulated manifestos, and different newspapers backed each man. Although generally regarded as superior to Williams in scholarship, Müller had the double disadvantage (in the eyes of some) of being German and having liberal Christian views. Some of the newspaper pronouncements in favour of Williams were based on a claimed national interest of having an Englishman as Boden professor to assist with the work of governing and converting India.

As of 2017, the professorship is still in existence, and is now the last remaining Sanskrit professorship in the United Kingdom. The position of Boden professor at the University of Oxford was established by the bequest of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Boden of the Bombay Native Infantry, who died in 1811. His will provided that on the death of his daughter (which occurred in 1827), his estate should pass to the university to fund a Sanskrit professorship. His purpose was to convert the people of Indiato Christianity "by disseminating a knowledge of the Sacred scriptures among them".An editorial in the British national newspaper The Times in 1860 said that the professorship was "one of the most important, most influential, and most widely known institutions at Oxford, not to say in the whole civilised world. It paid between £900 and £1,000 per year for life.

Williams was Boden professor until his death in 1899, although he retired from teaching (while retaining the title) in 1887 because of his health. He took as the title for his inaugural lecture "The Study of Sanskrit in Relation to Missionary Work", in keeping with his views as to the role of the chair. He received a knighthood in 1886, and was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1887, when he changed his surname to become Sir Monier Monier-Williams.

For  Max  Müller, losing the election was "a decisive turning point in his scholarly and intellectual life", according to Chaudhuri. It meant that Müller was never to teach Sanskrit at Oxford, although he remained there until his death in 1900; nor did he ever visit India. Greatly disappointed by not winning the chair, Müller "regularly avoided or snubbed Monier Williams and his family on the streets of Oxford", according to Williams.

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Boden, after whom the professorship in Sanskrit at the University of Oxford is named, served in the Bombay Native Infantry of the East India Company from 1781 until his retirement in 1807. He moved to Lisbon, Portugal, for the sake of his health, and died there in  1811. His daughter Elizabeth died in 1827, and Boden's will provided that his estate should then pass to the University of Oxford to establish a professorship in Sanskrit. His purpose, as set out in his will dated 15 August 1811, was to convert the peoples of India to Christianity "by disseminating a knowledge of the Sacred scriptures among them".

Christopher Zand Minkowski, an American academic, has been Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford since 2005. His writings include Priesthood in Ancient India (1991) as well as articles on Vedic religion and literature and the modern intellectual history of southern Asia.

Interesting ! ~ the way UK recognized Sanskrit and tried using its rich treasures for conversion of Hindus !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
6th Dec 2021. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ! ~ the way UK recognized Sanskrit and tried using its rich treasures for conversion of Hindus !