Recalling the Greek who espoused India

| | in Oped

Demetrios Galanos, the 19th century Greek Indologist, embraced and enriched both Indian and Greek culture through his knowledge quest and deep insights. No wonder both India and Greece are recalling him more than Alexander today

Two hundred years ago, there lived a Greek ‘Pundit’ by the name Demetrios Galanos (1760-1833) in Varanasi. Son of a wealthy family from Athens, and trained in priesthood in the seminary at Patmos, he ended up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as tutor to children of Greek merchants in the city. But within a few years, he relocated to Varanasi, where he mastered Sanskrit. It became his consuming passion to translate Sanskrit texts into Greek, a language few could understand in India and nobody would publish in.

Galanos spent the last 40 years of his life in Varanasi until he passed away and interred in the local Christian cemetery. His plans to return to Greece, after it achieved independence from the Turkish rule in 1829, never fructified. None of his works were published during his lifetime except The Aphorisms of Chanakya, which Captain Nicholas Kephalas, through whom the manuscript had been sent to Greece, plagiarised and published under his own name. At death, Galanos left behind volumes of handwritten folios. But replete with alpha, beta, gamma, kappa, lambda, mu and nu — they were no more intelligible to the local populace (including the British residents) than hieroglyphics are to the tourists in Egypt.

But fortunately, these works were collected and despatched to Athens. The best part of them were published in seven volumes between 1845 and 1853, and preserved in the National Library of Greece.

They comprised i) verses from Bhartrihari, abridged The Aphorisms of Chanakya and Jagannath Das’ Bhaminivilasa ii) Jain Amarchand’s Balabharathi iii) Bhagvad Gita iv) Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa v) Itihas Samucchaya (derived from the Mahabharata) vi) stories from Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and Sukasaptati and vii) Devi Mahatmya.

The posthumous publications of Galanos instituted a new discipline in Greece viz Sanskrit studies or Indology. The newest manifestation of Galanos’ legacy is the Athens Centre for Indian & Indo-Hellenic Studies (2016) that offers courses in Sanskrit, Hindi and Indian philosophy. I recently met Dimitrios Vassiliadis, Professor of Sanskrit and Hindi, who heads the Centre. Vassiliadis, an author of several books with subjects spanning from Buddha to Tagore, was recently in India to participate in a conference organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) on Galanos in New Delhi and Varanasi.

Other delegates included Australia-based Greek author Dennis Dinopoulos, Anthropologist professor Pavlos Kavouras and danseuse Leeda Senthala from Athens. From the Indian side, the speakers were professor Bharat Gupt, professor Udai Prakash Arora, AK Singh. The conference included musical feast called Greek Ragas & Improvisation by Thimios Atzakas & Group.

The spellbound audience was given full latitude to participate in discussions. Always fond of upsetting the applecart, I turned on a new subject which created a zing. I pointed out that around the time Galanos was poring over the Sanskrit texts, Indians (in Bengal) were rediscovering ancient Greece. It was actually a part of modernising India. The world knows about Lord Byron (1788-1824), the British Romantic poet, who wrote quite a few poems about Greece, and perished in the Greek War of Independence. But few are aware that Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), the Prometheus of Bengal Renaissance, wrote poems about ancient Greece and War of Independence sitting 6,000 km away in Calcutta. His poems included —Thermopylae (1826), Greece (1827), The Greeks at Marathon (1825), Address to the Greeks (1826) and Phyle (undated).

Sensing the duplicitous stance of Britain and France, in the Greek War of Independence, Derozio, like Byron, advocates absolute self-reliance. ‘Will Europe hear? Ah! No-ah! no/She coldly turns from theee; Thine own right arm, and battle-blade/Must win the victory’. He sums up ‘And then will Europe hear? — she shall/But not a mournful strain;/The world will hear exultingly/That Greece is free again’ (Greece, 1827). 

In 1833, when Galanos passed away, the first history of Greece appeared in an Indian language. Written by Khettro Mohun Mookerjea, the Bengali book titled, ‘Greek Desher Itihas’ was published by Calcutta School-Book Society. It was a translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Greece (1809). The Bengali text ran into 400 pages. This was followed by another book titled, ‘Greek Desher Itihas’ (1857) by Dwarkanath Vidyabhushan, a translation of Leonhard Schmitz’s book, A History of Greece for the Junior Classes. Vidyabhushan, a professor of Sanskrit College in Calcutta, later distinguished himself as the editor of reputed Bengali weekly Somprakash. He informs that Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Principal of Sanskrit College and noted social reformer, brought him Schmitz’s book and motivated him to translate it into Bengali.

Despite dissimilarities in the works, Galanos on the one side, and Derezio, Mookerjea and Vidyabhushan on the other, there was a deeper unity of purpose. Galanos, it appears from the body of his work, was interested in shaping the minds of his compatriots. He did not lose himself in the deep woods of Vedas, Upanishads and Shastras. He chose those kinds of works like Bhagvad Gita, Chanakya Neeti, Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Raghuvamsa among others, which could instruct the future generation of Greeks in ethical conduct, prudence and discreetness. Galanos’ works were letters to his countrymen.

Derozio, Mookerjea and Vidhyabhushan were figures of Bengal Renaissance. They wanted to shape a new nation by instilling the virtues of patriotism, heroism and duty to the society. Ancient Greece exemplified these values. That is why even a Sanskritist like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was insistent that his peer Dwarkanath Vidyabhushan familiarised the Bengali readers with history of ancient Greece. 

To the renascent Italy (14th-16th century), Republic France and Victorian England, the idea of ancient Greece represented high point of civilisation. Nor was its effect lost on India.

Those who wield the pen in seclusion are also nation-builders. Isocrates (436-338 BC), one of principal Attic orators (actually an essayist), spent more years in his refining his panegyric on the Persian War than Alexander took to conquer Asia till Afghanistan. Isocrates’ modern compatriot Galanos devoted more time to intellectual work. No wonder, India and Greece are recalling him more than Alexander today.

(The writer is an independent researcher. Views expressed herein are personal)

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