Wilkins, Sir Charles
Early Writer of the Sikhs (1749 or 1750-1836)
Sir Charles Wilkins, the writer of the following observations on The Sikhs and their College at Patna as an eminent orientalist of his times (1749 or 1750-1836). He was the son of the famous Walter Wilkins and was born in 1749 or 1750. At the age of about twenty-one he arrived in Bengal in 1770 as a writer in the East India Company’s service. Like most of the Englishmen of those days, he was highly interested in the study of oriental languages. He devoted his leisure hours to the study of Sanskrit and was the first Englishman to acquire a thorough knowledge of that language and published a grammer of it in 1779. Under the patronage of the then Governor General. Warren Hastings, he translated the Hindu religious philosophical work, the Bhagavad-Gita and deciphered many Sanskrit inscriptions. He himself prepared the first Bengali and Persian types and set up a printing-press at Calcutta for the oriental languages. He was the right hand of Sir William Jones of revered memory in founding the Asiatic Society of Bengal (later the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal), now the Asiatic Society at Calcutta and establishing the well-known series of the Asiatick Researches.
After sixteen years’ stay in India he returned to England in 1786 and published his translations of the Sanskrit book of fables, the Hitopdesha, and of Kalidas’s drama Shakuntala. In 1800 he was made the custodian of the vast collection of oriental manuscripts taken away from the library of Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam, and he was the first Librarian of the India House Library, London.
He was also a scholar of Islamic literature and, in 1806, he edited Richardsons’ Persian and Arabic Dictionary which speaks so highly of the depth of Wilkin’s learning. Two years later in 1808 he produced another Sanskrit Grammer which was a greatly an improved, or rather a re-written, edition of his first work on the subject. In addition to these works he wrote a large number of valuable papers on Indian subjects which created a good deal of interest in England about the people of this country
For his deep scholarship and services to the cause of literature, the University of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of the Doctor of Civil Law (D. C. L.), and the Royal Asiatic Society of Literature gave him their medal as “Princeps Literature Sanskrita,” and he was elected as an Associate of the French Institute. He was also an LL. D. (Legum Doctor=Doctor of Laws) and an F. R. S. (Fellow of the Royal Society). King George IV was pleased to Knight him in 1833 and give him the badge of the Guelphic Order. Three years later, Sir Charles Wilkins died on May 13, 1836, laden with honours and international fame as a pioneer scholar of oriental literature.
These observations of Sir Charles on the ‘Sikhs and their College at Patna’ were written for the Asiatic Society from Benares on March 1. 1781, after he had paid a visit to the Sikh temple Takht-Sahib (popularly known as Harmandir Sahib), the birth-place of Guru Gobind Singh, on his way to that city, and were published in the Asiatick Researches or Transactions of the Society, 1788. This is the first known account of the Sikh institutions written by an Englishman, the only other accounts in English of any importance written before this being from the pen of a French-Swiss gentleman Major (afterwards Colonel) Antonie Louis Henri Polier (1741-1795) written in 1780 as a memoir, and in 1776 in his letter of May 22 from Delhi to Colonel Ironside at Belgram.
I consider these observations of the learned writer interesting and worthy of the attention of the students of history and religion, and this is my only apology for placing them before the readers after the lapse of over a century and a half.
It appears that like most of the other Sikh temples in the country in those days, the Patna temple also was running a flourishing Pathshala under the guidance of the priests. It is, perhaps, therefore, that he calls the temple a ‘College’.
There may be another reason also. The Schools and Colleges were then called Dharamshalas or Pathshalas. The Gentleman with whom Wilkins happened to be conversing about the Sikhs might have called the temple a Sikh Dharamshala, as the Sikh temples are so often called. This might also have led Wilkins to suppose that it was a Sikh College.
It is most gratifying to find that the views of the Sikhs in respect of their temples were as modern in the eighteenth century as men of twentieth century are expected to hold. Every man of whatever caste or creed was allowed to enter them. When Wilkins asked the Sikhs present there “if I might ascend into the hall. They said it was a place of worship open to me and to all men”. There were no restrictions on the admission of anyone into the Sikh brotherhood, if he were willing to be initiated into it. Wilkins tells us that they offered to admit him into it.