Charles Wilkins

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Sir Charles Wilkins, KH, FRS (1749 – May 13, 1836), was an English typographer and Orientalist, notable as the first translator of Bhagavad Gita into English, and as the creator, alongside Panchanan Karmakar,[1] of the first Bengali typeface.[2]

He was born at Frome in Somerset in 1749.[3] He trained as a printer. In 1770 he went to India as a printer and writer in the East India Company's service. His facility with language allowed him to quickly learn Persian and Bengali. He was closely involved in the design of the first type for printing Bengali.[4] He published the first typeset book in the language, earning himself the name “the Caxton of India”.[5] He also designed type for publications of books in Persian. In 1781 he was appointed as translator of Persian and Bengali to the Commissioner of Revenue and as superintendent of the Company’s press. He successfully translated a Royal inscription in Kutila characters, which were hitherto indecipherable.

In 1784, Wilkins helped William Jones establish the Asiatic Society of Bengal.[4]

Wilkins moved to Varanasi, where he studied Sanskrit under Kalinatha, a Brahmin pandit. At this period he began work on his translation of the Mahabarata, securing strong support for his activities from the governor of British India, Warren Hastings. Though he never completed the translation, portions were later published. The most important was his version of the Gita, published in 1785 as Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon (London: Nourse, 1785). In his preface Wilkins argued that the Gita was written to encourage a form of monotheist "unitarianism" and to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism he ascribed to the Vedas.[6]

His translation of the Gita was itself soon translated into French (1787) and German (1802). It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature and on European perception of Hindu philosophy. William Blake later celebrated the publication in his picture The Bramins, exhibited in 1809, which depicted Wilkins and Brahmin scholars working on the translation.

With Hastings’ departure from India, Wilkins lost his main patron. He returned to England in 1786, where he married Elizabeth Keeble. In 1787 Wilkins followed the Gita with his translation of The Heetopades of Veeshnoo-Sarma, in a Series of Connected Fables, Interspersed with Moral, Prudential and Political Maxims (Bath: 1787). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1788. In 1800, he was invited to take up the post of the first director of the India House Library, which became over time the world famous 'India Office Library' (now British Library — Oriental Collections).[7] In 1801 he became librarian to the East India Company, He was named examiner at Haileybury when a college was established there in 1805. During these years he devoted himself to the creation of a font for Devanagari, the “divine script”. In 1808 he published his Grammar of the Sanskrita Language. King George IV gave him the badge of the Royal Guelphic Order and he was knighted in recognition of his services to Oriental scholarship in 1833.[7] He died in London at the age of 86.

In addition to his own translations and type designs, Wilkins published a new edition of John Richardson's Persian and Arabic dictionary -- A Vocabulary Persian, Arabic, and English; Abridged from the Quarto Edition of Richardson's Dictionary as Edited by Charles Wilkins, Esq., LL.D., F.R.S. -- By David Hopkins, Esq., Assistant Surgeon on the Bengal Establishment in 1810.[8] He also published a catalogue of the manuscripts collected by Sir William Jones, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Wilkins.

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