Rembrandt Steele: Exploring local history through art and artists

Today I have been engaged in a little freeform research, the kind of thing that keeps me engaged with history even when I don’t have much in the way of professional opportunities to practice it. The real problem over the last year has obviously been the pandemic, and I am excited about opportunities that may be forthcoming to get back into the physical archive space as opposed to the very limited virtual one. Nonetheless, online is the place to start so that you don’t waste time at the repository. 

This morning I logged some web hours researching my old school, the John Herron School of Art and Design. There are a wide range of materials available, some of which are located in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives at IUPUI’s University Library (Herron joined in partnership with IU in the late 1960s and became part of IUPUI in 1969), with some other materials found at The Indiana Historical Society’s Glick Center, and still more being hinted of as being located in the Indianapolis Museum of Art Archives at Newfields. In addition to material about the school itself, of course, and its associated parent organization, there is a coterie of personalities associated with its hundred-plus year history, many of which have their own personal collections in the archives. 

The Tinker House, site of the original Heron School of Art

One of these personalities, who I have investigated at a bit in detail, was an artist, photographer, and amateur architect named Rembrandt T. Steele, son of well-known Indiana painter T. C. Steele. It turns out that when the Art Association of Indianapolis, which was organized in 1883, decided to form a school with the monies left to it by local businessman John Herron, they looked to the Steele family for inspiration. The organization purchased the artist’s former house and studio property, known as the Tinker-house, just northeast of the intersection of Pennsylvania and 16th streets, and transformed it into an art school. This was in 1902. 

They also made ‘Brandt’ Steele, one of the first faculty members of the new school to be opened in the former residence. A galley was to be opened as well, and the property was much renovated to accommodate it’s new functions. It probably didn’t hurt his career that Brandt’s father was the vice president of the Art Association.

The standard curriculum was to practice art intensively, “six hours daily, six days in a week.” Steele was assigned to teach design daily in a class listed as, “Modern ornament. The study of nature and its application to design.”

1902 Circular

A note on the back of the circular notes that “the annual membership fee to the art association is five dollars,” and that when “both parents are members” it entitles children to attend all lectures and receptions given by the Association.

Brandt Steele House In Woodruff Place Indianapolis

There were other items of interest about Steele the younger in the archives as well, along with his immediate family. Not only was Brandy a successful ceramicist, but he also designed his own home from scratch, one of the more distinctive properties in the city dating to the turn of the century, still standing on East Drive, in Woodruff place. Steele was an avid photographer, so there are large collections of his photographs in the archive. With none of them digitized, however, their contents only hinted at by the available finding aids.

In addition to Brandt’s drawings and papers, the archives also contain many writings and drawings attributed to his wife, Helen McKay Steele, including essays, letters, and most intriguing of all diaries. Helen was the daughter of a local newspaper magnate, and an accomplished writer, making her letters a pleasure to peruse.

Taken together the archival collection of the two personalities offers insightful and personal first hand views into Midwestern urban life during the Victorian Era. Early letters between them reference the Spanish-American War, and photos show that Brandt joined the Indiana Militia later, during the First World War. 

Page from letter of Hellen McKay Steele to Brandt, dated May 14 1898

6 P.M. Sunday —

Been over to corner of Meridian and 5th to see regiment go by. It was very quiet and solemn but I cant see anything with normal eyes while you are sick. I wanted to call and perhaps get a glimpse of you earlier but mamma thought better not — I do hope this messy note will not be delayed

Hellen McKay Steele to Brandt Steele: May 14, 1898.
Indiana Historical Society.

Hellen Elizabeth died in 1947, while Brandt died in 1965 at the generously old age of 95. Both are buried together in the famous local landmark, Crown Hill Cemetery. Together they lived through two world wars, a pandemic, and a great depression, while Brandt survived his wife well into the Cold War. I am looking forward to looking deeper into their joint histories, as well as those of the Art School and Association, with a view to recreating some of the elements of upper class life in downtown Indianapolis during the turn of the last century. Wish me luck!

To the reader

The best thing about this blog is that it exists. Which is to say, it is better to have a blog that serves as a creative outlet and forum which may need fixing and tightening, than to have no forum at all. This site started as an adjunct to my attempts to self-learn Attic Greek. My failures as an autodidact aside, it quickly became clear that I didn’t have time to maintain this site and so it languished for several years as I took a more traditional approach to beefing up my education. Now, here we are several (okay, many) years later, and I have resurrected this blog as a means of personal literary expression. Which is shorthand for this is now a writer’s blog, and I as a writer intend to write… here. But what am I writing? I guess that remains to be seen.

It’s clear that I don’t really know what I am doing here, most of the time. Just look around, things are all over the place. It’s not that I have some overriding concern I’d like to examine to the nth degree; like the historical nuances of Iron Age Time Keeping or How to Make a Fortune Convincing Others to Buy Crypto. I did have that when this was a blog about Ancient Greek, but what has it become? What am I even doing here? Finding my voice is the best way that I can state it, and it looks to be an ongoing process, and one that threatens to expand into many different modes and forms of expression.

All I can say in my defense is that, while I may not know exactly what I am doing, I do know, more or less, where I am headed. I am moving forward, groping in the darkness, and looking for signs of light and life. I am writing. I am exploring. And mostly, I have just been keeping it to myself… or else presenting it in an ephemeral manner on social media. I have found the wherewithal to write daily, or nearly daily. I keep a journal that has little to do with this space, until, that is, something pops out and demands a hearing. I need an outlet for those occasional flashes of inspiration, which I do actually manage to inveigle from the spirits once in a while. I need a place to work out larger ideas and themes as well, presenting my research as it were. I do also need some outside structure and limit pressuring me to write for an actual audience, real or imagined. That is, I guess, why I have a blog; at least this blog, let’s just leave the others out of it for the time being.

… readers can expect to see new poems and poetic fragments of works in progress being posted here as the work continues… Other, more detailed examinations, in an academic or philosophical style, may appear from time to time as well, but I would like to avoid overly long and highly detailed studies for the time being.
Mercury in a Decorative Frame with Grotesques

I am mercurial ☿ by nature. I follow the wind where it listeth. Today, I might be working on poetry; tomorrow, I might actually be looking into some of those historical nuances I poked fun at earlier. But even while I am finding my voice, my public voice, I intend to keep this blog going. Not because anyone needs a record of my musings, but because I think that they might be entertaining and even sometimes valuable or well-crafted. And I need it. I need it as a spur to continue to improve and dare to put things out there for someone to maybe read. Sapere aude, or, maybe I should say, scriptare aude

But I also understand the exigencies of keeping an audience engaged. I don’t want to make this an exercise in confusion or self indulgence, a shotgun approach to literary accomplishment. So, I intend to forge and keep a few themes that I can return to over and again, and give you all, whomever you might eventually turn out to be, something to hang your hats on. A little stability in an unstable world.

So, here are my proposals. For one thing I intend to keep working in a poetic mode, at least periodically, for the foreseeable future. With this in mind you readers can expect to see new poems and poetic fragments of works in progress being posted here as the work continues. But I am interested in prose, too. With that aspect in mind I would at least like to feature a regular series of posts just on my interests at large as they present themselves during any given week. Maybe that means a travel report, or some commentary on world events, or just going down the rabbit hole on some subject that has captured my attention; not unlike this post itself, for example. The news of the day as my mind reads it, so to speak, and definitely from a subjective point of view. 

Other, more detailed examinations, in an academic or philosophical style, may appear from time to time as well, but I would like to avoid overly long and highly detailed studies for the time being. I have other venues for that sort of examination, and if it is not of general interest, don’t expect to see it here. While this blog did start out – or at least restart – in an academic mode, it did so merely as a vehicle of convenience. I needed a place to post my work for a class on the history of the book and so I did it here. Now, I want to shift gears away from academics, though I may return to such topics, more casually , from time to time.

Finally, I would like to post some thoughts or brief biographical materials together on authors and their works as I encounter them. I have been making it a point to read much more fiction that I am normally accustomed to, and I would like to examine those items here. Such literature reviews will concern authors that I find interesting in whatever aspect, genre, or medium, I encounter their work. Hopefully, I will dig into such works while I am still reading them and they are fresh in my mind. I will especially seek to focus on authors about whom I wish to discover more myself; I can then share my findings and recommendations with you. So, look forward to that if you are a book lover, as I have been reading some excellent and somewhat obscure authors of late in a variety of genres as well as my usual staples of history and nonfiction. 

Well, that is all I have to say on the subject of subjects. I hope to be a more active poster in the future now that I have some working parameters, and I hope if you visit here you will follow this blog and return from time to time to see what’s new.

Thanks for visiting,

Wm. J.

Poetry, memed

Lately I have been experimenting with using copyright free images as a backdrop for short poems or poetic fragments. This is perhaps not very sophisticated in the cultural sense, and likely not in the pop-cultural sense either since my productions have been quick and low-fi, but it creates visual interest for social media purposes, and makes my poems shareable. Keep in mind that all are copywritten. Here are my latest examples.


Napoleon after his abdication in Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814, by Paul Delaroche.

Forty miles gone in Napoleon shoes,
another day’s dawn with the Julian blues.
Crossing white rivers, crossing past streams;
crossing o’er bridges burnt black at the seams.
Sitting in your captain’s tent jotting down plans;
counting birds from the bush into your hand.
Words lash and they flash: cold Damascene steel,
honed by grit of the past on the sharp’ner’s wheel.
Keen is the thirst that’s got blood on the lip,
and takes vein to the tongue with a lap and a sip.
It took a hard minute of thinking to find
        that you’ve got a warlike mind.
        I’ve read your book, 
       I’ve studied your sign, 
        put down your axe, 
       and I think you will find,
        you’ve got a warlike mind, babe,
        you’ve got a warlike mind.

Out from the Battle, by Wallace Morgan.

At the black water edge of Pacific’s shore,
I’m swept up, knocked down, blacked out on the floor,
your sharp sudden surge, eliding defenses,
crossing the wire, overrunning the trenches.
Mocked by the king, and the lords, and the prince,
awed over by scenes of stark violence.
You came on by night, wrapped deep in the fog,
as I toiled in the swamps and slogged through the bogs,
pinned down by moonlight and blitzkrieg advances,
I threw all my dice and drew all my chances.
Ares in a summer dress drinking cold wine,
        done up in red boots,
       crossing the line.
        To me it’s just a vicious mess, 
       I guess it happens sometimes,
        that you’ve got a warlike mind, babe,
        you belong to a warlike tribe.

Chalice of Saint John the Evangelist by Hans Memling.

Woke up exhausted on the wrong edge of your bed,
with unpleasant dreams falling outta my head.
Medusa in blue with a cup full of potions,
dripping in poisons with love’s easy notions,
asking ten times if I really still care,
while freezing my blood with a basilisk stare.
Looks locked with my eyes, under interrogation,
keeping full score of each new allegation.
You call out for peace in this desert landscape
but ensorcell my soul to prevent my escape.
Look, I’ll call you sometime, we can have an armistice;
you just laughed in my face and ate all my breakfast.
I can’t keep this up, I need to stop and unwind,
        and take a small break from this trouble unkind.
        You can call it victory
       and I’ll call it fate,
        while we go for a stroll
       in some forest upstate.
        We can soak in the quiet
       if you’re so inclined,
        and make a retreat from this warlike mind,
        and bury the hatchet on the warlike mind.

Battle of the Golden Spurs,1302.

I surrender the field to your bright shining charger,
and watch from the ramparts as you pillage and plunder.
Head bowed, I march to the grim execution,
paying due homage to your proud institution,
swearing off conflict and black enmity,
resigned to the guilt and the indemnity.
In solemn white chapel with contrite ablution,
I promise on saints to full true restitution,
and balance the scales with each leaden ounce,
and sharpen my dagger, made ready to pounce;
now the troopers have laid down their arms,
and returned to their fields, and their plows, and their farms,
and taken a shine, to the peaceable clime,
      as I brood with a warlike mind.
      With eagles above, my mission aligned,
      my strength ascending, your weakness divined,
      I was born for a warlike time, 
      and I’m in love with your warlike mind, babe,
      we two are a warlike kind.

Sir Galahad – the Quest of the Holy Grail
by Arthur Hughes. 1870.

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We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, root-locked…

After posting and publishing this poem yesterday, I realized it was still falling short. I had high expectations, but I think that was mostly based on the fact that I had hammered some of my ideas into the difficult sonnet form and knew more or less what I was talking about and feeling and sensing in the verses. Unfortunately, I don’t think I was able to convey those thoughts, merely to relive and recreate them for my own amusement. Ultimately, I do think poetry should be communication driven. I still don’t have a problem with making the reader work, that is part of the fun, unlocking the secrets, but I do not wish to revel in obscurity either. So hopefully, this new version, with unnecessary fluff cut out and sinews tightened will be more readable and more to the point of my mission.

We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, root-locked,
adrift in white Ford, skimming the humid gauze
of Des Moines’ dark. By dash-light glamour you mocked
my pulse, quicked by your sweaty petting palms.

A rhinestone shroud of halogen soaked hues
absorbed your lolling laughter, low and louche.
Still unloosed, the lash that binds honey to the bruise
that purples my dreaming eye with spreading flush.

Buzzing in the noon, knee-deep in summer’s corn,
laid out on the hood, like serpents on a stone,
green and white and tan and taut of form —
and molten as the flames that feed the unbound heart.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time ‘s the turner’s wheel, and memory the grease.


We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked,
drifting, by turns, to split the humid gauze,
as under the rayed and haloed light you mocked
my rising in your sweating, petting palms.

Iowa noon, buried knee deep in the corn.
Tan, green, and white. And lithe as serpents wound —
splayed out and twinned on brazen steel shelled form,
molten as the flame that feeds the unbound heart.

A rhinestone veil of halogen soaked hues,
be-shrouded your lilting laughter, low and lush.
Yet, unsundered from the honey is the bruise
that stains my inner sight with spreading flush.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time’s the spinning wheel, and memory the grease.

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We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked…

We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked,
drifting, by turns, to split the humid gauze,
as under the rayed and haloed light you mocked
my rising in your sweating, petting palms.

Iowa noon, buried knee deep in the corn.
Tan, green, and white. And lithe as serpents wound —
splayed out and twinned on brazen steel shelled form,
molten as the flame that feeds the unbound heart.

A rhinestone veil of halogen soaked hues,
be-shrouded your lilting laughter, low and lush.
Yet, unsundered from the honey is the bruise
that stains my inner sight with spreading flush.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time’s the spinning wheel, and memory the grease.

My 2020 Readings

Stuff I read in 2020, with some notes.

Part 1 of 3

Reading Reading Reading…
1958 & 1996.
University of Nebraska Press.

Mircea Eliade.
Patterns in Comparative Religion.

This was the first book I finished last year, while still on vacation at Daytona Beach. 2020, before the virus hit us. It seems like a long time ago, now.

This book, though, is a classic examination of religious symbolism by a master theorizer and de facto founder of the discipline of comparative religion. This book looks at symbols and complexes as innate components of religious expression, almost as if they were archetypes, but without the imposed framework of supposed universalism, and examines the constellation of meanings associated with them and the rationale behind their accreated potencies.

Each section has its own bibliography, allowing the reader to deep dive into a particular religious symbol and explore it in depth through a whole raft of eclectic references. This is a book that repays repeated examinations and can be used as the framework for an extended survey of religious manifestations and forms across multiple cultures.

I will be returning to many of the concepts found in this book throughout my blogging. I will also be following Eliade’s A History of Religious Ideas as a framework for surveying world religions in the coming year, so stay tuned for that.

Mircea Eliade.
The Two and the One.

A collection of essays by Eliade examining specific religious questions. Explorations include androgyny as symbol, dualism, and the prevalence of ascension as metaphor for initiation. 

Oxford University Press.

Daniel Pals.
Nine theories of religion. 3rd Ed.

I read this together with the above Patterns in Comparative Religion which it complements quite nicely. This book is a survey of religious theorizers, including Eliade, and their impact on thinking about religion. Essentially a historiography of comparative religion, this book looks at such figures as Sigmund Freud, William James, Mircea Eliade, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim among others. A great reference too and a way to refresh one’s memory on specific academic schools of thought.

The section on Freud is especially useful, though it would seem an argument could be made for the inclusion of Jung as well. Nonetheless, because Freud is less detailed in his theories about the psychological roots of religion, the analyses here are helpful.

Laurie Patton, Translator.
Bhagavad Gita

A concise, sometimes beautiful translation of a timeless masterpiece of religious thinking. The eleventh chapter where Krisna reveals himself in all of his transcendent glory is breathtaking.

Read more about the Gita and its cultural importance in an earlier blog post here.

Equinox Publishing.

Isaac Lubelsky.
Celestial India

A history of India as seen through the eyes of the Theosophical movement and its relationship to Indian Nationalism. A very helpful first dive into the subject of Theosophical history for me, it led me to many resources and opened my eyes to Theosophy’s wider influence. It turns out that maybe they were a bit more than cranks. What this book includes, that is uniquely helpful: some deep background on Indian Orientalism which covers East India Company sources and gives special focus and attention to Friedrich Max Müller and his early Victorian era academic influence. What this book lacks is a more complete history of Mme Blavatsky herself and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, the founders of Theosophy, especially in their early years. Ultimately this is due to the fact that the focus of this monograph is really on the second generation of Theosophy headed up by Anne Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater and its political influence. Leadbeater is also given a bit of short shrift, perhaps because a series of scandals and accusations meant his direct influence on Indian affairs was minimal after he was forced by unsavory sexual scandal to relocate to Australia.

Bloomsbury Publishing.

William Dalrymple.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

A popular narrative history that covers the rise of the EIC into a conquering power on the subcontinent of India. The story is one of almost continual colonial expansion that explodes out of Calcutta during the latter part of the 18th century. The British advance really begins in the wake of the global 7 years war when France becomes weakened and can no longer maintain her Indian possessions and evolves into a series of proxy wars where the EIC ties its wagon to flagging rajas, exchanging military assistance for control over economic monopolies and control of foreign policy. As my first exploration into the Raj, I do have to admit that the campaigns do tend to blur into one another, but the image of redcoats marching to war against Mughal war elephants is indelibly etched upon my consciousness. It is a period I hope to study in more depth, and look at this book as a good starter and a good place to become familiar with the general timeline, the geography, the major players, and some of the more interesting characters.

Carlo Ginzburg.
The Cheese and the Worms

A fascinating examination of a miller accused of heresy in early modern Piedmont and what books he may have been reading. Read my longer examination here.


Orlando Figes.
The Crimean War: A History

A perfectly functional history of the Crimean War. Long, but readable and entertaining. The bibliography is a good source for period materials. What I ended up finding most fascinating about this conflict was how its course was ultimately influenced by the press, which, for the first time, due to telegraph and long distance cable, was able to report in near time on the happenings at Sevastopol and elsewhere. It was also interesting how this conflict made national heroes of characters like Florence Nightingale, again due in large part to the press. Finally, its influence made this one of the first British wars where the individual soldier was celebrated for his heroism and not just the gentry. In many ways this conflict, though on a much smaller scale, was a dry run for the First World War in terms of technology, both with regards to arms, as well as communications.


Peter Hopkirk.
The Great Game

Fascinating look at good old fashioned long 19th century espionage. An array of shady and colorful characters try to push the envelope, British against Russian, Russian against British, and both against the Southwest asian natives who really didn’t ask to be on the borderlands of Queen Elizabeth’s jewel. There is adventure and triumph over adversity as much as there is snobbery, racism, and cultural disdain. The British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was unnecessary, tragic, and shameful and shines a dismal light upon the escapades which preceded it. The final fiasco was that the Russians and English would end up as allies only 10 years later, rendering all of their skullduggery moot. Russian sources seem thinner than the English, but Hopkirk makes a good game of it. I am primed to read another work of his soon, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet, soon.

Bhagavad Gita as Cultural Icon

Krishna as Arjuna’s Charioteer

One way in which a book can be termed a cultural icon is if its impact spreads out wide beyond its own particular context and the circumstances behind it’s authorship, continuing on to cast its influence down long corridors of time and into unexpected and even unimagined domains of thought and expression. A book might be relevant for its historical impact within the narrow confined of its own time and place, possibly even having wide influence within that sphere, still without transmitting its aura to other times and cultures beyond those in which it arose. But when we consider such works as the epic poems of Greece, the plays of Shakespeare, or political screeds such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, what marks them out as standing alone among the general tide of literature is their long term impact and the multivalence of their expressions in cultures markedly different from those in which they originated. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, likely never imagined his work on The Raven as the basis of a Simpsons episode, and yet such unlikely transformation is what separates it as a cultural icon from popular works of the day that are soon forgotten and which disappear into dimly remembered history.

Company painting depicting an official of the East India Company, c. 1760

There is a phenomena in the study of linguistics where it is well known that the more commonly a verb is used in everyday discourse the more subject it is to dramatic change, accumulation of new, often contradictory, meanings, and variability in form — by such means are irregular conjugations formed. The etymology of simple everyday words such as to go, to bear, to speak are sometimes so convoluted and so strewn with synonyms as to make their study a labyrinthine sort of exercise. Analogously, when a literary work attains a ubiquitous aspect in terms of its cultural influence, it too often becomes difficult to assess, not just in its impact and influence on other works – in some sense that is the easy part, if one can find an explicit reference – but even, in some cases, in defining what that work is in itself.

The Bible, for example, has so many and multifarious expressions as to make it difficult to circumscribe a universally acceptable definition of what the Bible as title actually refers to. The works of Shakespeare provide another example of a corpus for which a myriad of variant expressions exist, often in a multiplication of media as well. In classical works, such problems can be exacerbated by difficulties in varying manuscripts, idiomatic language changes over time, and shifting cultural contexts that confuse the meanings of words and expressions.

Another work which can be characterized by the expansiveness of both its cultural relevance as well as its difficulty in definition is the Bhagavad Gita. Not even in itself a distinct work, being a part of a much longer national epic, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita in English, has had an outsized and multifarious impact compared to its actual text, which is quite concise, and its relatively recent genesis, having only first been translated and published into English in 1785. Of course, we must ask, is it even possible to speak of a work in translation as a separate entity from its source material? In this case, it seems appropriate, since at the time, the English speaking world, outside of the relatively insular community of East Indian Company employees and officials, was almost wholly ignorant of Indian cultural forms and religious expressions, their primary exposure to such being from what popular accounts might have existed in elaborated travelers’ tales, secondhand accounts from the Islamic world, which had dominated trade and commerce with India up until the Renaissance, and those provided by antique and classical Greek and Latin sources, out of date by centuries, at least.

Before the worldwide expansion of European power, for medieval Christian Europe, India was the edge of the earth, a distant horizon, a strange land where things were very different. The strangeness of India for Europeans could take monstrous or pleasant forms virtually without limit, because they were unchecked by experience.

(Trautmann. 2011: 169-70).

During the medieval period, European access to the cultural artifacts, intellectual products, and trade goods of India was greatly curtailed in comparison to the old Greco-Roman world order, and even in that earlier time, India was a distant and poorly understood land, despite Roman pretensions to domination. In the medieval era, access to India was almost entirely mediated through Islamic sources, and not until the Renaissance and the great European expansion that it engendered, was the full and constant contact or commerce established between the subcontinent and the now rising Western European powers.

In his landmark study Orientalism, Edward Said says of Sanskrit and other Indian cultural studies that they “did not acquire the status of scientific knowledge until after Sir Willam Jones’s efforts in the late eighteenth century” (75) But even so, the confluence of this intellectual stream with those sources engendered by Wilkins and Hastings, all of whom were working under the aegis of the Royal Asiatik Society, must have watered the same fields, coming together as they did in such close proximity and with such similarity of purpose, that the net cultural results of one are for all practical purposes indistinguishable for those of the other. All were promoting the use of Sanskrit to aid EIC rule though cultural understanding, whatever their other motives and whatever other side effects might result. Wilkins, along with Jones, was credited with the Society’s foundation, and, if Jones produced academic work that was influential in the origination of the new discipline of Indology, it was a discipline within which Wilkins had already been working independently, and doing so in an arena which would have public as well as academic impact, his proposed translation of the Mahabharata.

Charles Wilkins, in an mezzotint engraving by John Sartain, after a painting by James Godsell Middleton. Published in 1830.

His translation of the Bhagavad Gita, only a part of his proposed endeavor, would be published in the year following the foundation of the Society, and was written simultaneously with its foundation. The work would prove wildly influential, even well beyond the academy, and within two years was translated again from his version into both Russian and French. His 1808 Grammar of the Sanskrit Language would cement his reputation in the academic world as well, being the first known Grammar of that language in English that was widely available. And if there were still any question as to his reputation, they must have been silenced by his later reception of knighthood, conferred by George IV in 1833. Unfortunately, many of Wilkins’ personal papers were destroyed in a house fire in 1796. It is to be noted that Wilkins did not produce his translation alone but worked in tandem with an uncredited Indian Pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya who was eventually made “head preceptor” of the Benares Sanskrit College. More on both of these men and their histories with respect to Sanskrit and the Gita can be found in the works of Richard H. Davis (2015).

Title page of the first Bengali typeface printed book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778

The list of eminent Europeans who were influenced by the translation of the Gita into English and other modern European languages is almost too long to attempt to list. Even Mahatmas Gandhi, it is believed, came to the Indian classical tradition through the transmissive medium of the English language. According to Michael Bergunder, “there is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi’s notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union” (Bergunder. 2014: 398). Elsewhere, and in other incarnations, the Gita had demonstrable influence on a range of diverse luminaries such as Thoreau, William Blake, Herman Hesse, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who understood Sanskrit), T. S. Eliot, Phillip Glass, C. G. Jung, Philip K. Dick, and the Beatles, among countless others.

When Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of an atomic device at Los Alamos he famously (or infamously) cited the 11th discourse from the Gita, in which Krishna reveals himself in cosmic form as Visnu to Arjuna: a vast multi-armed god bearing a myriad of weapons of war. Laurie Patton (2008: 126 & 126 n. 3) translates the verse:

If a thousand suns
had risen
in the sky
all at once,
such brilliance
would be
the brilliance
of that great self.

Bhagavad Gita 11.12

For a translation of an at the time obscure work in a more or less unknown language, Wilkins work has held up remarkably well, considering its more than two century old vintage. It begins with an advertisement crediting the EIC board of directors for its publication, noting the antiquity and veneration of the original. This is followed by an insightful letter of recommendation for the work written by Wilkins patron within the EIC, Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal, who, despite his reputation for even handedness with respect to the native culture, was famously impeached on ground of corruption in 1787 (cf. Edmund Burke). Nonetheless, Hastings’ introduction to the Gita is a call for tolerance and appreciation towards the Indian natives, their religious practices, and the cultural value of their intellectual history.

Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their garden at Alipore, c. 1784–87

Hastings calls any accumulation of knowledge with respect to conquered non-European cultures as a gain in humanity that “lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection” and which “imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence.” He goes on to say that through observation of the native character the British would acquire a “more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights,” learning to account them as equitable to their own, as human beings. He notes, presciently, that these influences which are to be found in writing such as the Gita will be felt and will survive “when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist” ( Wilkins, 1785, 13).

If there were an award for cultural icon, I would nominate the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita as a worthy recipient, while at the same time respecting the source material from which it cannot be divorced. It is perhaps enough to say that it is possibly the one translation that came home again, through the person of Gandhi, and forged a nation from the admiration of its own oppressors. But it also caused a flourishing of ideas in England, in Europe, and in the Americas, as readers found a new handle on ancient metaphysics, and struggled to intermix their own ideas with those of another culture, creating a new synthesis that found new expressions in the American Transcendentalist movement, German Romanticism, the mystic poetry of William Blake, and the flourishing of new religious ideas that followed the first World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1983. The Gita is truly a remarkable book with ramifications that spread out from its center like ripples on a placid pool. With over three hundred translations into English alone, it is one of the most popular and important ancient works available to us.


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Dharmatā [Suchness]

Phillip K. Dick

Dharmatā [suchness] is said to be that which constantly exists in the world (nityasthita), whether or not the TATHĀGATAS appear to rediscover it.

Dharmatā” from The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2014.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

Phillip K. Dick, from How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. 1978. via WikiQuote