Happy Birth-Day, Mr X!

Clemency Montelle
University of Canterbury

It is surprising the places a letter can take you!

De Jong was a meticulous collector.  Along with books and offprints, everything that entered or left his house and offices was kept and documented.  His correspondence was no exception.  De Jong ensured that copies were made of letters he sent, and those copies, along with their original replies, were retained and stored together. They can now be found in the University of Canterbury De Jong collection, organised in chronological order in large ring binders. The binders read like intertwined episodes of unfolding interactions and testify to both De Jong’s every day work as well as some more unusual requests and interactions. They thus offer a fascinating backdrop to the more public activities undertaken throughout this scholar’s career.

These binders caught my eye one day as I was browsing through the collections, and with a morning to spare, I curled up in the corner of the Macmillan Brown library and started reading from the beginning.  At a certain point, my eye fell upon a letter dated 12 July 1983, partly because of the distinctive University of Canterbury Letterhead at the top, and partly because the word ‘Sanskrit Manuscript’ jumped out at me.  I paused and read the letter carefully [See Figure One].  The letter was from R. W. Hlavac, the then University Librarian, writing to De Jong asking for expert information on an artefact the university library had just acquired as part of the Albert William Andrews collection, namely an 18th century Sanskrit astrological scroll which was between 6 and 7 meters long.  De Jong’s reply, composed on the 16th of August, suggested it should be a project for a suitably qualified student and the correspondence on this between the two appears to have stopped there.

Letter, R.W. Hlavac to JW de Jong. De Jong Collection, Macmillan Brown Library MB 1171

I was intrigued. Where was this manuscript?  Did the library still have it?  Furthermore, my mind was boggling at the dimensions of this scroll.  Seven meters? In all my dealings with manuscripts, I’d never heard of scroll of such size before!  Clearly this was a very special item in the library collection, but nobody seemed to know anything about it.  I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

The librarians located the scroll and brought it out of storage.  The classification read:

 MB 680 Albert William Andrews papers : Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Description: 1 scroll ; 17 cm. wide, kept in box. Notes: The handwritten and illustrated paper scroll is thought to be a personal horoscope dating from the late 18th century.

A horoscope is a special sort of astrological document.  Based on the birthdate of an individual, astrologers would compute the positions of the sun, moon, and planets, and using these, would predict key events in the life of the individual.  While the basis of astrological forecasts are not strictly scientific, the methods astrologers used to compute planetary positions and related phenomena are of great interest to historians of astronomy, as they give us direct insight into the techniques and mathematical models astronomers used to predict celestial events.

While the scroll was very long, it was quite narrow, no more than 20cm and it was stored rolled up.

Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Albert William Andrews papers, Macmillan Brown Library MB 680

The scroll appears to have been made up of many smaller sheets pasted together.  Unfortunately, the first sheet appears to have become detached at some point and is no longer part of the original. This means that the beginning of the text is gone, so that any information about the name and circumstances of the individual for whom this horoscope was cast is lost, details which are central to a horoscope. However, by a stroke of luck, when the text does pick up, it starts with the precise date and circumstances of the birth of this individual.  The date, using various traditional eras, is given as: “saṃvat 1903, śaka 1768, winter, month of Kārttika, the dark fortnight, 12th tithi, 48th ghaṭī, 49th pala, Sunday”.  This is a very exact date, and corresponds to Sunday, November 15th, 1846, 19 hours, 31 minutes, and 36 seconds after sunrise.  This sort of precision is typical of a horoscope!

The longitudes and velocities of the planets are then computed for this precise instant.  These are presented in the scroll in a table:

Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Albert William Andrews papers, Macmillan Brown Library MB 680

Each of the columns (to be read vertically) list the planets, beginning with the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon.  The longitudes are given in zodiacal signs, degrees, minutes, and seconds.  Underneath these, are the instantaneous velocities, given in minutes and seconds.  These are also summarised in a horoscopic diagram, in the form of a rosette:

Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Albert William Andrews papers, Macmillan Brown Library MB 680

Here the first letter abbreviations of each of the planets are placed in one of the twelve partitions of the rosette, which are labelled 1 through to 12 anticlockwise, one for each of the twelve zodiacal signs.  With this key information computed, the astrological interpretation can begin!

The scroll contains written passages, astrological diagrams, pictures, and numerical tables.  It is a heavily decorated, colourful piece with inks in hues of greens and yellows filling in rosettes, highlighting thick boarders, and delimiting passages of text.   The scroll also contains many other astrologically significant schemes, including the rekha-bindu scheme (`line and dot’) and an ornamental snake which encodes the names of the 27 nakṣatras, special constellations found along the path of the moon:

Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Albert William Andrews papers, Macmillan Brown Library MB 680

It is hard to estimate the significance of the scroll.  One assumes that such documents cannot be all that rare as these are the products of a working astrologer.  However, given the length and detail of this particular document, I suggest this was quite a special text!  Perhaps there might be a clue in the Andrews papers that might reveal the name of the individual for whom the horoscope was cast as well.

Without De Jong’s letter, the scroll could very well be still sitting on the shelf.  However, as he recommended, I will be making sure that this text gets transcribed and translated, and eventually published, so that it adds to our understanding of this corpus of documents in Indian history.

Sanskrit Scroll. Horoscope. Circa 18th century. Albert William Andrews papers, Macmillan Brown Library MB 680


Treasures of the de Jong collection: Wilkins’ Bhagavadgītā

McComas Taylor
Australian National University

Someone once told me that the fastest way to a Dutchman’s heart was with Speculaas biscuits. Clutching a packet of those spicy treats, I nervously approached the front door of the irascible Professor JW de Jong (1921-2000). I had begun my doctoral research at the Australian National University just a few years before he died and I had decided to pay a courtesy call to the noted Indologist and Buddhist Studies scholar at his home in a leafy suburb of Canberra.

Mrs de Jong welcomed me in, and the three of us had tea and biscuits in their airy front room with big picture windows looking over the garden. The biscuits apparently worked their magic: instead of the daunting figure I had feared, I found a diminutive scholarly gentleman with big hair and thick glasses. I don’t remember the details of our conversations, but after tea, Prof. de Jong led the way down through a gallery packed with books on either side to his library/studio in a converted garage in the back garden.

From a shelf he drew out one of the prizes of his 14,000-volume collection: a large brown book of obvious antiquity. De Jong proudly opened the book and showed me the title page: The Bhăgvăt-Gēētā or Dialogues of Krĕĕshnă and Ărjŏŏn. I drew my breath. This is one of the holy grails of Indology and arguably one of the most influential books in the world, Charles Wilkins’ 1785 translation of the Hindu classic, the Bhagavadgītā.

Wilkins himself was an interesting character. Born in England in 1749, he trained not in a scholarly or intellectual discipline, but as a printer. Like many adventurous young men of his generation he was lured to India where fabulous fortunes or sudden death were equally possible. Reaching Calcutta in 1770 he worked as printer for the East India Company and elevated himself through the system, mastering Persian, Bengali and Sanskrit on the way. With the great British orientalist William Jones, Wilkins co-founded the Asiatick Society of Bengal, the first scholarly organisation dedicated to the study of the Indic cultural world. Wilkins he returned to England in 1786, the year after his translation appeared, and died there many years later at the ripe old age of 86.

Written in Sanskrit about two millennia ago, 700-verse Bhagavadgītā appears in the middle of the great Indian epic, the Mahābhārata. A great internecine war between two rival branches of the royal family is about to begin. When the two armies have arrayed themselves for battle, Arjuna, one of the leading warriors, losses his nerve and refuses to fight against an army consisting mainly of this kinsmen and mentors. He turns to his charioteer Kṛṣṇa (Krishna) for advice, but gets much more than he bargained for. Not only does Kṛṣṇa give solace to the hapless hero, he reveals himself to be supreme deity in human form, and teaches Arjuna about the illusory nature of existence. Thus chastened, Arjuna regains his composure and the battle begins.

Over the centuries, the Bhagavadgītā, or ‘Song of the Lord’ as it is sometimes translated, has been sung, cited, recited, illustrated and annotated across the length and breadth of India. It is one of the best loved texts in the Hindu world, not only is it written in beautiful poetic form, it is a source of profound philosophy and insight.

Wilkins’ translation (which he undertook with the unacknowledged assistance of a pandit, Kasinatha Bhattacharya) brought this remarkable text to a European audience for the first time, where it caused a sensation. Romantics loved it because its monotheistic tone suggested that Indians were ‘just like us’, as they believed in a single ‘God’. Orientalists loved it as it fed into the concept of a mysterious, spiritual ‘East’. Indian nationalists, including Gandhi himself, confronted by monolithic religions like Christianity and who needed to establish a unified image of ‘Hinduism’, found in the Gītā a convenient ‘Hindu Bible’.

In the West, the Gītā was for many people the first point of contact with India, and sparked an interest, a love or a fascination for that land and its people. It has been the entry point for many to Hindu traditions, to India, and to Indian studies. This text has shaped perceptions of India in the West, and indeed throughout Asia, down the generations.

Wilkin’s first work effectively spawned an entire Gītā translations industry. Richard H. Davis, author of The Bhagavadgita: A Biography, cites earlier work by Callewaert and Hemraj who identified 1891 translations of the text into 75 languages. Davis estimates there are now well over 300 English translations alone.

After de Jong’s death in the year 2000, the University of Canterbury acquired his entire library and fifty lineal meters of manuscripts from his widow. The collection is now in the care of the Macmillan Brown Library. At a recent workshop organized by Dr Clemency Montelle to celebrate the de Jong archive, I had the pleasure of encountering this rare volume again, after an interval of nearly twenty years.

Joanna Condon, who manages the collection, had laid out a number of collection’s treasures for us to enjoy in the rare books room. Each volume lay open in a white pillow to avoid damaging the spine. Wilkins’ Gēētā was larger than I remember – officially it is quarto, which is about the size of a modern A4 sheet.  Its brown board cover shows its age, but the pages are surprisingly crisp and bright, and look like they were printed yesterday. Nice to know that this extraordinary treasure will be safe for generations of scholars to consult and to enjoy from now on.

The Bhăgvăt-gēētā : or, Dialogues of Krĕĕshnă and Ărjŏŏn ; in eighteen lectures with notes / translated from the original, in the Sănskrĕĕt, or ancient language of the Brāhmăns, by Charles Wilkins. de Jong Collection, Macmillan Brown Library, reference: 737388