Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match by Johann Zoffany, c.1784-6. (Tate, London)

Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India

The foundations of modern India were laid by the British governor-general, Warren Hastings. But he paid a heavy personal price.

As India celebrates 70 years of independence, it is time to remember that it was the first British governor-general who launched the country’s cultural renaissance in the 1780s. Of all Britain’s imperial proconsuls, Warren Hastings was the most curious and learned about Indian culture, declaring: ‘I love India a little more than my own country.’ He became fluent in Bengali and had a good working knowledge of Urdu and Persian, the languages of the Mughal elite.

One of his most enlightened acts as governor-general was to promote the founding of the Calcutta Asiatic Society in 1784, under the presidentship of the distinguished Orientalist Sir William Jones, whom Hastings brought over from England. Alongside his day job asa Supreme Court judge, Jones presided for a decade over a cultural revival which flowered in the Bengali Renaissance of the 19th century and laid the basis of India’s future nationalist and cultural narrative.

Particularly significant, after seven centuries of mostly benign neglect under Muslim rulers, was the rediscovery under Hastings of the subcontinent’s classical Hindu and Buddhist past. His patronage promoted the revival of Sanskrit, the ancient classical language, rescuing it from the narrow confines of a corrupt, oppressive Brahmin priesthood. Under Hastings’ patronage, the Asiatic Society pioneered an ambitious programme to translate Hindu religious classics, such as the Bhagavad Gita, from Sanskrit into English and local vernaculars. Hastings’ introduction to the first ever English translation of the Gita said passages of it were ‘elevated to a track of sublimity into which our habits of judgement will find it difficult to pursue’.

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