Article: Royal Asiatic Society

Contributed by Kathy Lazenbatt

The Royal Asiatic Society is a scholarly body in London, which was set up in 1823 to further the study of Asia. Since its foundation, the society has played a critical role in expanding and deepening the understanding of Asia through its publications, lectures and events. The Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) also has collections of important items from all over Asia, especially South Asia, which were mainly acquired in the 19th century.

The RAS holds a small but significant collection of Jain objects. Some of the Jain treasures in the collections are available on JAINpedia, and include:

The diagram is a kind of maṇḍala or yantra, which both mendicants and lay people use in meditation and worship. This item is a rare and valuable sūri-mantra-paṭa, which only Śvetāmbara monks use, and is also one of the earliest surviving examples. It is also interesting because, during the conservation process for the yantra, two smaller uninscribed diagrams were found in different layers of the fabric. This unusual sūri-mantra-paṭa is a highlight of JAINpedia.

Background

The oldest institution in the UK devoted to a deeper understanding of Asia, the Royal Asiatic Society was established amid growing interest among 19th-century Europeans in the cultures of Asia. The RAS has a respected history of intellectual engagement with all parts of Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent. This tradition continues today with publications, projects and events, which are open to everyone who is interested in Asia, not just professional academics.

History

Bust of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke. While in India working for the East India Company, Colebrooke developed an interest in Sanskrit and then in wider intellectual and cultural life in India.

Bust of Colebrooke
Image by unknown © public domain

The Royal Asiatic Society was the first British organisation dedicated to the study of Asia. It was founded at a time when Europeans were beginning to learn Asian languages in a systematic way, gaining a real knowledge of Asian cultures, history and religions. The society was instrumental in encouraging an exchange and transfer of cultural understanding, a process which is still ongoing today. In Britain it was at the heart of that process, fulfilling a national role in Asian studies, and it collaborated with organisations and scholars worldwide.

The society was founded in 1823 by the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke ‘for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia’. Many distinguished scholars have been associated with its work, including:

  • Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890), explorer and first translator of the Arabian Nights and the Kāma Sūtra
  • Rammohan Roy (1772–1833), Indian reformer and first Indian member of the RAS
  • Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943), archaeologist of the Silk Road
  • Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Bengali poet and writer.

Current activities

Today the Royal Asiatic Society provides a forum, independent of government, in which professional scholars join those with a general interest in Asia. To fulfil its aims the RAS:

  • runs a library of books, manuscripts, artworks and photographs
  • publishes an annual journal with Cambridge University Press
  • publishes four or five books on Asian studies each year
  • holds two monthly lectures, one presented by students
  • hosts a variety of other talks and events on Asian topics
  • undertakes joint projects with other professional and academic institutions.

All activities and access to the library are free of charge to the general public.

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Related Manuscripts

  • Aḍhāī-dvīpa

    Aḍhāī-dvīpa

    Royal Asiatic Society. 069.001. Pandit Tilokacanda Dayacanda. 1816

  • Front cover

    Front cover

    Royal Asiatic Society. Tod MS 34. Unknown author / Bhavadeva-sūri. 1404

Related Manuscript Images

  • Mahāvīra’s birth

    Mahāvīra’s birth

    Royal Asiatic Society. Tod MS 34. Unknown author / Bhavadeva-sūri. 1404

  • Bottom left

    Bottom left

    Royal Asiatic Society. 065.001. Unknown author. 1449

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