1902 Encyclopedia > Horace Hayman Wilson

Horace Hayman Wilson
English Orientalist
(1786-1860)




HORACE HAYMAN WILSON, (1786-1860), one of the most distinguished Orientalists of England, was born in London on 26th September 1786. He was educated for the medical profession, and on completing his studies went out to India in 1808 as an assistant-surgeon on the Bengal establishment of the East India Company. Instead of entering the regular medical service, however, his knowledge of chemistry and the practical analysis of metals caused him to be attached to the mint at Calcutta, where he was for a time associated with John Leyden, the Scottish poet and Orientalist. It was not long before he himself became deeply interested in the ancient language and literature of India, and attracted the attention of Henry T. Colebrooke, the famous Sanskrit scholar, on whose recommendation he was in 1811 appointed secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In 1813 he published the Sanskrit text —with a graceful, if somewhat free, translation in English rhymed verse—of Kalidasa's charming lyrical poem, the Meghaduta, or Cloud-Messenger (2d ed. 1843, 3d ed. 1867) He then undertook the arduous task of preparing the first Sanskrit-English Dictionary from materials compiled by native scholars for the college of Fort William, supplemented by his own researches. The work appeared in 1819, prefaced with an excellent general survey of Sanskrit lexicology. A second, much enlarged, edition, but without the introduction, was published in 1832, and has recently been reprinted at Calcutta. The appearance of the Dictionary at once placed Wilson in the first rank of Sanskrit scholars; and, while patiently pursuing his study of the writings and institutions of ancient India, he became one of the most valuable contributors to the Asiatic Researches and the Calcutta Quarterly. Among his more important contributions to these journals may be mentioned essays on the "Medical and Surgical Sciences of the Hindus" (1823); the "Hindu History of Kashmir" (1824); "Hindu Fiction" (1825); and his masterly "Account of the Religious Sects of the Hindus, their History, Doctrines, and Practices" (1828-32). In 1827 he published Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus, in 3 vols., in which, besides a very full and highly appreciative survey of Indian dramaturgy, which still remains the standard authority on the subject, he offered elegant translations of six complete plays and short accounts of twenty-three others. This work was reprinted in London in 1835, in 2 vols., and again in Wilson's Collected Works (vols. xi. and xii.). Of considerable importance, alike to Sanskrit and vernacular students, and to Eastern antiquarians generally, was his next publication, the Mackenzie Collection (2 vols., 1828; 2d ed. in one vol., 1882), being a descriptive catalogue of the extensive collection of Oriental, especially South Indian, MSS. and antiquities made by Col. Colin Mackenzie, and purchased from his widow by the Indian Government, now deposited partly in the India Office, London, and partly at Madras. Neither his extensive literary researches, however, nor the official duties of an assay master and mint secretary, at any time prevented Wilson from taking a prominent part in all social amusements of the Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta, especially in musical and theatrical entertainments. His interest in political and economic affairs in India is shown by his Historical Sketch of the First Burmese War, with Documents, Political and Geographical (1827, reprinted in London), and his Review of the External Commerce of Bengal from 1813 to 1828 (1830), as well as by his History of British India from 1805 to 1835, in continuation of Mill's History, 3 vols. (1844-48), and largely based on his personal impressions and recollections. He also acted for many years as secretary to the committee of public instruction. As such, he not only organized and superintended the studies of the Hindu College from the time of its establishment, but took a leading part in the promotion of public education among the natives, and the introduction of the English language and European science, although, as one of the staunchest opponents, on grounds of expediency and feasibleness, of the proposal that English should be made the sole medium of instruction in native schools, he became for a time the object of bitter attacks. Long, however, before this con-troversy came to an end he had been called away to a different sphere of scholarly activity. In 1832 the university of Oxford, in recognition of his services to Oriental scholarship, selected Dr Wilson to be the first occupant of the newly founded Boden chair of Sanskrit. Shortly after his return to England he was also appointed librarian to the East India Company. He now found himself in a position singularly favourable to learned research and literary pursuits; and the long record of his subsequent work shows that he made the best of his opportunities. He immediately joined the Royal Asiatic Society, and, succeeding Colebrooke as director (in 1837), he was the very soul of the society up to the time of his death, scarcely a number of its journal appearing without some interest-ing contribution from his pen. His death took place at London on 8th May 1860.

Of these contributions we need only mention here his " Historical Sketch of the Kingdom of Pandya" (1836), based on documents con-tained in the Mackenzie collection; the continuation of his " Analysis of the Puranas" (1836), begun in the Bengal Society's Journal (1832); "Civil and Religious Institutions of the Sikhs" and "Religious Festivals of the Hindus" (1848); "Analysis and Revised Translation of the Rock Inscriptions of Kapur di Giri" (1850); and his popular lecture "On the Present State of the Cultivation of Oriental Literature" (1852). Hardly less numerous, and certainly not less valuable, are his separate publications during this period, by which important light was thrown on many deoartments of Eastern inquiry. The most noteworthy of these works are the text of, and commentary on, the Sankhyakarika (1837), being a very popular summary of the Sankhya philosophy, with a translation (of the text by Colebrooke, and the commentary by Wilson) ; translation of the Vishnu Purana (1840, 2d annotated ed. by F. E. Hall; Works, vols. vi. - x.); Ariana Antigua, Antiquities and Coins of Afghanistan (1841); edition of Dasakumdracharita (1846); Glossary of Indian Revenue, Judicial, &c, Terms (Whs); Translation of the First Four Ashtakas (rather more than one-half) of the Sacred Hymns of the Rigveda, 3 vols., 1850-57 ; Grammar of the Sanskrit Language, in several editions; and two lectures on the Religious Practices and Opinions of the Hindus, delivered at Oxford in 1840. In the Collected Works (12 vols.) the more valuable of his papers and lectures form three volumes of essays on Sanskrit Literature and two volumes of essays on The Religion of the Hindus, edited by Dr R. Rost. While in point of accurate scholarship Wilson was perhaps scarcely the equal of Colebrooke, any deficiency in this respect is far more than counterbalanced by the many-sidedness of his genius, by literary powers of a very high order, by his admirable artistic taste, and by broad human sympathies, which enabled him fully to appreciate and enjoy the merits and beauties of the ancient Indian literature. A considerable number of Sanskrit MSS. (540 vols.) collected by Wilson in India are now in the Bodleian.








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