Article: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

British administrator-scholar, Henry Thomas Colebrooke (15 June 1765—10 March 1837) was a leading scholar of Sanskrit and a founder of Western Indology. He spent over 30 years in India, working for the East India Company and becoming familiar with many different aspects of South Asia. Even though, like many scholars of the period, he was not really aware that Jainism is distinct from both Hinduism and Buddhism, he was one of the first Western scholars to point to the existence of a Jain tradition.

While living in India, Colebrooke began publishing his wide-ranging research via the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland on his return to England in 1815. He dedicated the rest of his life to scholarly researches, working from the large collection of original manuscripts and copies he had brought back from the subcontinent.

Instrumental in Colebrooke's exploration of the culture and history of South Asia was his use of original texts, in the form of manuscripts. This is seen in his major intellectual contribution to the origins of Jain studies, entitled 'Observations on the Sect of the Jains', published in 1807. Although some of his conclusions about Jainism were overturned by later scholarship, Colebrooke's work was vital in bringing knowledge of the Jain tradition to a wider audience.

Jain works have a significant place in Colebrooke's collection of Indian manuscripts, which is now in the British Library. The Colebrooke Collection forms a substantial element of the British Library's holdings of Indian manuscripts and artefacts and continues to play a major role in the study of South Asia, particularly Jain studies.

Biographical outline

This 18th-century painting of East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, depicts the headquarters of the East India Company. Set up to control trade between England and Asia, the Company developed its own armies and administration, and was the effecti

East India House
Image by Thomas Malton the Younger, 1748-1804 © public domain

Born in London, Henry Thomas Colebrooke was the youngest son of Sir George Colebrooke, financier and MP. He was educated at home, proving a gifted pupil in mathematics and classics.

In 1782 he joined the East India Company, of which his father was the chairman, and worked in India for 33 years. Unlike many British people in India at this period, Colebrooke became very interested in South Asian culture and languages. He became a renowned Sanskrit scholar and an eminent expert on many aspects of Indian culture, including law, languages, literature, natural sciences and mathematics.

Back to England in 1815, Colebrooke no longer had any official position, but devoted himself to research, promoting knowledge of India and supplying materials to colleagues.

Typically of many British men working in India at that period, Colebrooke had three children with an Indian woman. Only one child survived, who was sent to England for education (Rocher and Rocher 2012: 117ff.). In 1810 he married an English woman, who died shortly before they were due to sail back to England. He had three sons with Elisabeth Wilkinson but only Thomas Edward survived his father. He wrote a biography of his father under the title Life of H. T. Colebrooke (1873), with a bibliography listing his publications.

Colebrooke began studying Sanskit as a way of accessing the knowledge of ancient India and became a celebrated scholar. He used his knowledge in his professional life as well as pursuing scholarly research in numerous fields. He worked differently from most other Europeans studying the culture and languages of India, in that he read the original sources and discussed them with Indian pandits and scribes. He was very active in the scholarly Asiatic Society of Bengal, instituting several ambitious projects during his seven-year tenure as president. Shortly after returning to England, he was prominent in establishing the organisation that is now known as the Royal Asiatic Society, publishing many studies in its journal.

Career in the East India Company

Colebrooke lived in India from 1783 to 1815, working for the British East India Company in various posts. Although he attained high rank in the legal, diplomatic, administrative and even academic spheres, his rise was not as straightforward as it may seem. For example, his actions sometimes diverged from elements of company policy or the approach of the British government in London. His career came to an end after disagreements with the directors of the East India Company and he returned to England in 1815.

Scholarly activity

The word 'Sanskrit' written in Sanskrit using the Devanāgarī script. Sanskrit was the literary language widespread in ancient and medieval Indian civilisations.

The word 'Sanskrit'
Image by OldakQuill © CC BY-SA 3.0

Not having any knowledge of Indian languages beforehand, Colebrooke became interested in learning Sanskrit around 1790, when he was in Purnia, in north-eastern Bihar. This interest arose largely out of his curiosity about astronomy, algebra and other sciences that Indian thinkers had developed. His study of Sanskrit grew intense and finally became a central part of his public life, so much so that Colebrooke became widely acknowledged as a leading Sanskritist. His intellectual interests were very broad, demonstrated in publications on castes, ceremonies, languages, literature and philosophy, but also in mathematics, geography, geology, botany and crafts.

Colebrooke was a real polymath. First and foremost, he 'developed into the leading expert of Hindu law and Sanskrit studies, concerns that were intertwined in colonial practice' (Rocher and Rocher 2012: 33). Studying and codifying Hindu law and understanding its various schools were closely linked to its application in the courts in which Colebrooke worked as a judge. Practical matters connected to colonial work functioned as starting points for several areas of study, but Colebrooke's intellectual achievements go far beyond this. Their scope and quality has led to comparisons with the great Indologist Sir William Jones (Gombrich 2004–5).

From the start, Colebrooke surrounded himself with Indian traditional scholars – pandits – who provided him with original manuscripts or purpose-made copies of Sanskrit texts, whether grammars, lexica, law treatises and so on. Among them was the Bihari pandit Citrapati, whom Colebrooke came to know in Purnia. He also employed two copyists whom he met in Mirzapur, called Ātmarāma and Bābūrāma (Rocher 2007). The three of them followed him to Calcutta. Colebrooke encouraged Bābūrāma to found a Sanskrit press in Calcutta, but did not consult him on scholarly matters. He also recruited some pandits in Banaras and later a Bengali pandit in Calcutta. In contrast with most Europeans of the period, Colebrooke valued the work of the 'natives' and believed that British servants of the East India Company should learn Indian languages, especially Sanskrit (Rocher 2012: 198).

Having become a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1792, Colebrooke became its very energetic president in 1807 and occupied this position until his resignation in 1814. He composed 20 contributions to issues of its journal, the Asiatic Researches, including his first ever article, 'On the Duties of a Faithful Hindu Window' in 1795. Further, he initiated large-scale Asiatic Society projects of publications and translations of texts.

Back in England, he was the leading force for the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1823. He declined the presidency but was very active in the society, contributing numerous articles to its Transactions.

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