A Slice Of A Sanskritist’s Life
PETER PETERSON: FOUNDERS AND GUARDIANS OF THE ASIATIC SOCIETY OF MUMBAI
By Namrata Ganneri. General Editor: Aroon Tikekar
Indus Source Books for The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Mumbai, 2016, pp. 122, R125.00
series of monographs on the Founders and Guardians of the Society. This project was envisioned and initiated by the late Dr. Aroon Tikekar, former President of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Peter Peterson was associated with the then Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (BBRAS) in the capacity of a scholar, Secretary (1884–
1889), Vice-President (1894) and President (1897–1899) of the Society till his death. He was a scholar who lived in India, loved India, worked and even died on the Indian soil. This monograph has underlined and reiterated his contribution to the field of Indology in general and Sanskrit in particular.
The author has divided this monograph into five parts based on the stages in the life of Peterson viz: i) Early life and career, ii) Service with the Education Department, iii) Research work on the ‘Search of Sanskrit Manuscripts’, iv) Association with the BBRAS and v) Conclusion. (The table of contents carries a typographical error of numbering conclusion as iv) instead of v) which could have been avoided). The monograph is well supported by a list of abbrevia- tions, Appendix enlisting the works of Peterson, Notes and an ex- haustive bibliography.
The author has suitably observed different stages in the study of Sanskrit and other Oriental languages by European scholars. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, these scholars changed the course of their focus, not limiting themselves to simply the discovery and description of India through these languages but to arrange and or- ganize this glorious past into a coherent narrative that extended up to the present times. This was the exciting ‘heroic age of Indology’. In the Saidian language, apart from the will and intention to under- stand India’s past, the European scholars wanted to control and manipulate India’s past assisting in her subordination. Though Peter Peterson was the product of this thought process, the author in this monograph investigates whether he actually did adhere to it.
In drawing the life sketch of Peterson, his education and train- ing in England and Scotland, his linkage with Presbyterianism, which is a reformist denomination amongst Protestants, the author rightly observes that the tendency to investigate and trace the roots of any thought as depicted in Peterson’s research is an outcome of this link- age. Peterson arrived in Bombay in 1873 and spent his entire life in this city. The second chapter traces the salient episodes of Peterson’s academic career when he joined the Elphinstone College as the Pro- fessor of Oriental Languages. He was the last European to be ap- pointed to this chair. This chapter enlightens the readers about the superiority complex nurtured by the British in appointing Euro- pean faculty because of their so-called superior training in techniques of research and scholarship. It is in this period that Peterson took up additional responsibility as the Registrar of the University of Bombay. The author has delved into the controversies faced by Peterson re- garding his appointment as against the German scholars Kielhorn and Buhler. She has brought to the fore Peterson’s struggles to justify scholarship and research acumen contradicting accusations of
underperformance and incompetency. This underlines the fact that inspite of being a European by birth, Peterson had to prove his mettle against other European scholars. The British Government valued manuscripts and had appointed Buhler to collect manuscripts from different corners of India, especially the western region. Handsome amounts of funds were dedicated to this project. The author has successfully unearthed the correspondence between Peterson and his superiors regarding handling and directing this project, for he had serious objection against this appointment and wanted to play a key role in collection and cataloguing of manuscripts. In this exercise, Namrata has correctly observed that the uniqueness of German Orientalism and their superiority had been accepted uncritically by their British counterparts. What saved Peterson in this controversy were his teaching skills and popularity amongst students of Elphinstone College.
Peterson’s association with the project on Collection and Cata- loguing of manuscripts lasted for two decades. He authored six volu- minous reports and a seventh report was in preparation when he passed away in 1899. It was because of the reports that he was the official representative of the British Government in the International Congress of Orientalists held at Leiden in 1883. The first four re- ports were extensive, wherein he had discussed the process of travel and searches with minutest details. The manuscripts were listed and appended in English as well as Devnagari. Namrata has observed that in the fifth and sixth reports the details of travel were avoided by him. One interesting finding of Peterson is the Subhasitavali of Srimad Vallabhadeva. His extensive commentary and detailed obser- vation brought to the forefront nine Sanskrit poetesses. This data was later used by historians in commenting about the position of education of women in Ancient India. His visits to the libraries lo- cated in Rajasthan and Gujarat unearthed a number of works per- taining to Jainism, observes the author.
Chapter IV highlights his scholarly contribution and service to the BBRAS. He had delivered speeches on many topics pertaining to Oriental languages on many occasions at the BBRAS. His well-re- searched thoughts on Ashvaghosha, the Kota inscription, Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra were well received by the learned audience at the BBRAS. In the course of the narrative, Namrata has recorded a brief history of the BBRAS. His comments on Hindu marriage were an outcome of the social reformist movements taking roots in colonial India. As a Secretary of the BBRAS, he successfully steered it during times of financial crisis. Under his Presidentship, the Society experienced surges in memberships. Namrata highlights the sensitive mind of this scholar. It was the time when there was outbreak of plague in Bombay. To ease the hardship of the employees, Peterson announced extra allowances for clerks and grain compensation to peons.
In the concluding chapter, Namrata observes that in comparison with giants of Indology, Peterson was an intermediary figure. Apart from the bare documenting of episodes in the life of Peterson, she notes his insecurities, survival instincts and negotiation skills in his academic life. She has noted that inspite of his arguments and skirmishes with Buhler, Peterson did not harbour any bitter feelings about him. Namrata has succeeded in documenting personal histories beyond the prism of power and knowledge. In the course of this narrative, it would have been apt if details of the thought processes of Peterson had been underlined in the context of his anthology of Vedic hymns, wherein he has noted and documented opinions of many European scholars on important hymns in the Vedas in general and Rigveda in particular.
Madhavi Narsalay is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai, Mumbai.