Who opened the doors of the east to the west? Who brought to the west the light of the east? Who were the ministers of the Indian Renaissance, the messengers of the Eastern Dawn? Earliest among the pioneers of the Eastern Wisdom, and in some sense the most potent in influence of all the early generation, we must record the name of Anquetil Duperron.
Born in Paris, on the 7th of December, 1731, Anquetil Duperron, as soon as years brought him conscious choice, turned his whole energies and hopes to the lands and learning of the east. It was as though a child of the eastern races, whose lips had already long ago tasted the nectar of eastern wisdom, had been brought by the cycle of birth and rebirth to the most stirring center of the peoples of the west, that reviving memories might renew again the love for the lore of the sunrise, and that he might serve as fitting messenger and intermediary between the old races and the new. Like some wandered sun-worshipper in the lands of mist and snow, his heart thirsted for the sunlit forests and mountains.
After studying such oriental tongues as were then known in Europe, Anquetil’s longing for the east possessed him altogether; he would have set out on his pilgrimage as a common soldier for the French armies in India, had not a meager benefice of the government opened to him an easier path.
At Pondicherry, on the Madras coast, he studied modern Persian, then the language of the Indian courts; then would have learned Sanskrit at Chandranagar in the Ganges Delta, but the struggle for Indian rule between France and England made it impossible for him to remain, and he took refuge at Surat, on the coast to the north of Bombay. Surat was then the home of the Parsis, and Anquetil at once plunged into the study of Zoroaster’s religion, translating as well as then was possible the Zend-Avesta scriptures of the worshippers of the holy fire. In 1762 he returned to Paris; a few years later, in 1775, he received from his friend Gentil, minister-resident at Faizabad, an old Persian manuscript, the translating of which gave to Anquetil his lasting fame. This manuscript was a translation of the Upanishads into Persian, carried out under the direction of the gifted, ill-fated Mogul Prince, Mohamed Darashukoh. Darashukoh was grandson and rightful heir of Akbar, the wisest and greatest of all modern Indian rulers; and from Akbar he inherited the search for the one wisdom that lies hid under all religions. This one wisdom Darashukoh sought in the bibles of all peoples; the Koran, the Laws of Moses, the Psalms, the Gospels. Sought, and found everywhere something precious; but the last word, the oneness of the Self and the Eternal only in the Upanishads of ancient India. Finding the Upanishad first in “the Paradise land of Kashmir,” as he himself calls that high, sunlit valley, he was eager to give them to the world, and bent all energy on the completion of a Persian translation. Almost immediately he fell victim to the cold bigotry of his brother Aurungzeb, who, under the pretext of ridding the world of a freethinker and infidel, cut his own pathway to the throne of the Moguls.
But Darashukoh’s life-work was ended; his Persian translation of the Upanishads complete, and this translation it was that Anquetil Duperron received, in Paris, in 1775.
Thinking French unsuitable, he set himself to render the work in Latin; and, in the midst of his labors, the storm of the French Revolution burst over his native land. Eager to continue his work, Anquetil made himself a silent isolation in a single room.
“My food,” he said, “is bread, a little milk or cheese, and spring water. With four sous a day I must supply my needs.
“In winter I have no wood for my fire, my bed has no pillow, no cover. I have neither wife nor children nor servants; almost all the world’s good things I lack, and yet how I love all men, and the good above all. Here I wage my hard war with the senses, and disdain the enticements of the world. And, full of longing after the highest being, I await with quiet heart the dissolution of my body.”
Anquetil’s Latin version brought the wisdom of India to the shrine of western philosophy, yet one cannot but think that, had he rendered it into French, its influence might have been far greater; the wisdom of the east might have found its way, not to the shrine of the philosophers, but to the great heart of his nation. In 1775 the field was ready for the sowing; the minds of the French people were thirsty for new ideals; and, had Anquetil been a man of strong will and eloquent speech, there might have been then, in France, not a revolution for the evangels of Voltaire and Rousseau, but a Renaissance of Indian wisdom. Yet perhaps the hour had not yet struck.
Anquetil’s splendid prologue to the Upanishads:—“Here, reader, is the key to the Indian sanctuary”—was quoted a year ago, at the beginning of our Upanishad studies.1 It remains only to give an insight into the quality of his work, by translating a few lines from his version of the Upanishad “By the Master.” He concludes it thus, weaving the commentary into the text:
“To the Light-being, the wise cry: O Being that hast the form of Light, lead me on the pure way; make me partaker of the great treasures of blessedness. Thou knowest all my works: forgive my sin. To thee, bowing down, the deepest adoration.
“And the wise knows: ‘that the Spirit in the Sun, and the Light-being that has the form of Light,—that am I; and the shining consciousness, that is universal Being,—that am I; and the Evolver, the former of all,—that am I.’”
1. This refers to the work done by Johnston for the Oriental Department of the Theosophical Society, in which he translated and commented upon several of the principle Upanishads. [ED.]