This essay examines the contested grounds of authorization for one important orientalist project in India during the nineteenth century – the translation of the ancient Sanskrit Rg Veda, with a view to highlighting the ultimately ambiguous nature of the orientalist enterprise. It is argued that Europeans initially sought to validate their translations by adhering to Indian scholarly practices and, in later decades, to a more “scientific” orientalist–philological practice. Indian Sanskrit scholars, however, rather than accepting such translations of the Veda, and the cultural characterizations they contained, instead engaged critically with them, reproducing a distinctive vision of Indian civilization through their own translations into English. Moreover, by examining the diverse ways in which key concepts, such as the “fidelity” of a translation, were negotiated by Europeans and Indians, this essay also suggests that intellectual histories of the colonial encounter in South Asia should move beyond debates about colonial knowledge to more explicitly examine the contexts of knowledgeable practices.
It has often been argued that British orientalist research in India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served to consolidate and authorize the rule of the colonial state, and contributed to an emerging European-authored narrative of global history. While it is now evident that orientalism served principally to construct forms of European power, it is often unrecognized that orientalist scholarship in India drew much of its authority from the cultural standing and intellectual expertise of the “traditional” guardians of Sanskrit-based knowledge, the brāhmaṇ paṇḍits (“learned men”).
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