How a pioneering Greek scholar was robbed of credit for translating Chanakya’s words into Sanskrit


In 1786, Dimitrios Galanos, a 26-year-old Greek teacher, sailed from Basra to Calcutta in search of a new life. A few months earlier, the young man formally trained in ancient Greek, Latin, philosophy and music, had been galvanized by a chance meeting with a merchant from Constantinople. The merchant, a Madratzoglou, had strong ties to the 200-strong Greek community that settled in Bengal in the 1780s in places such as Narayanganj, Dhaka and Calcutta.

“Madratzoglou found him ideal for tutoring the children of Greek merchants who had settled in Narayanganj (near Dhaka) and Calcutta and offered him a teaching position there,” wrote Dimitrios Vassiliadis , a renowned Greek Indologist and Sanskrit and Hindi scholar, in 2020 for the Hellenic-Indian Society for Culture and Development. “Galanos, eager to expand his knowledge, gladly accepted Madratzoglou’s offer and prepared for his journey to the East; ‘…to carry the torch of paternal education to the Greeks in India, and to send thence back to Hellas some sparks of the ‘light of Asia’.’”

After six months, Galanos reached India, a country where he would live for the next 47 years. From that time, he spent six relatively brief years as a teacher to the children and parents of a wealthy merchant named Constantine Pandazy. But it was a time well spent.

The Greek scholar lived in a Bengal plagued by the Hindu revival movement and met Hindu reformers who were outward looking and eager to interact with foreign scholars. It was also a period when European scholars developed a deep interest in Sanskrit and moved to Calcutta because of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. While working in Bengal, Galanos learned and mastered English, Hindustani, Persian and Sanskrit.

Some scholars studying the life of Galanos have suggested that he also got involved in business ventures and made a small fortune. In a 1969 article for the Journal of the American Oriental SocietySiegfried Schulz, who taught languages ​​at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., wrote that Galanos left behind 75,000 to 80,000 gold francs when he died in 1833.), Dimitrios Galanos left for Varanasi in 1793,” writes Schulz.

Life in Varanasi

Not much is known about Galanos’ life in the Hindu holy city. The scholar was so engrossed in translating texts from Sanskrit into Greek that he mostly kept himself aloof from other foreigners. However, it finds a place in a book published in 1824-’25 entitled Account of a journey through the high provinces by Anglican Bishop Reginald Heber.

The British were initially suspicious of Galanos’ motives for living in Varanasi, according to Heber. But, after observing him for a long time, they came to the conclusion that nothing in his behavior confirmed their suspicions. “So few Europeans, however, who can help him, reside in India, that it seems strange that a man should prefer it as his residence, without a stronger motive than a fondness for Sanskrit literature, d especially since he doesn’t seem to be meditating. any work on the subject,” Heber wrote.

The Anglican bishop mentioned a special friendship that Galanos shared with a Russian trader who lived in Varanasi. “There is also a Russian here, who, by natural affinity, lives very much with the Greek,” writes Heber. “He is, however, a tradesman, and has apparently evolved into a much lower rank in society than his friend.” The Russian, named Peter Federoff (Pyotr Fedorov), died in 1825 and was buried in the Chaukaghat cemetery in Varanasi. Their friendship was so close that there was a Greek inscription of Galanos on Federoff’s tomb.

Besides his Russian friend, Galanos mainly chose to be in the company of Sanskrit scholars. “He has few relations with the English, but he maintains very friendly relations with the principal Hindu families,” writes Heber. One of the Greek scholar’s closest Indian friends was a writer and exceptionally learned man named Munshi Sital Singh, who helped Galanos with his Sanskrit. The Persian Work of Sital Singh Silsilah-i-Jogiyan (Chain of Yogis) played an important role in how the West understood Indian religious groups. It was under the direction of the Indian scholar that Galanos embarked on a series of translations of Sanskrit texts into Greek.

Incredible legacy

In four decades in Varanasi, Galanos managed to translate 20 volumes of manuscripts. Unfortunately, none of his translated works were published in Greece during Galanos’ lifetime, except The Aphorisms of Chanakya, which the Greek captain Nikolaos Kephala, bearer of the manuscript, published under his own name. Greek readers first learned of Galanos after the plagiarized book was published, since Kephala mentioned him in the acknowledgments as a “most learned scholar of the Sanskrit dialect” who “helped” him translate the book.

The first volume of Galanos’ translations was published posthumously in Athens in 1845. It contained 330 verses by Bhartrhari Niti and Vairagya Satakas86 lines of Laughu Chanakyaand 98 verses of Panditaraja Jagannatha Bhaminivilasa.

The Greek scholar’s translation of Bhagavad-Gita was published in 1848. “It is the only occasion – in what is, apparently, his first completed translation – where Galanos names the Indian who helped him in the work: Kandaradasa”, writes Schulz in his article of 1969. “The note in the manuscript also records the exact date when he completed this study: November 12, 1802, at Kashi, the city of the Brahmins.”

Among his other notable translations were chapters of Devi Mahatmyam and Markandeya Purana.

Galanos’ greatest lexicographical work was a Persian-Sanskrit-English-Greek dictionary. Sanskrit and Persian words were written in Latin characters and accompanied by an English text with many explanations. Although the dictionary is incomplete and some translated words are missing, it was a pioneering attempt to help Greeks understand Sanskrit.

Some Greek scholars are of the opinion that Galanos converted to Hinduism and was accepted as a Brahmin in Varanasi, but Greek Indologist Vassiliadis wrote that there is enough evidence to suggest he retained his faith Christian. “Proof that Galanos continued to retain his Christian faith throughout his life is found in his correspondence with Greek priests in Calcutta and Greece,” Vassiliadis wrote. “Furthermore, his last will begins with the standard Christian formula, ‘In the name of God. Amen’ and contains specific instructions for being buried in a Christian cemetery.

Galanos died aged 73 in Varanasi in May 1833. The city was in the midst of a cholera epidemic and the Greek scholar may have contracted the disease. He was buried in a city cemetery.

He bequeathed “half” of his fortune to his nephew Pandoléon Galanos, while leaving the rest to the Academy of Athens. In his will, Galanos wrote: “I hereby give and bequeath also to the Principal Academy of Athens all my books, writings, Sanskrit translations and the dictionary of Memskey (Franciscus a Mesgnien Meninski) in the three volumes. He also left money for his teacher and servants and even set aside money to pay for his grave and headstone in the cemetery.

It took nearly four years for the manuscripts to reach Athens. “In Athens manuscripts were bound in volumes with little thought about sequence and incorporated into the fledgling university library,” Schulz wrote.

Munshi Sital Singh, who was the executor of Galanos, composed a Persian quatrain as an epitaph for his Greek friend:

“Woe, a hundred times!
Demetrios Galanos is gone from this world
To eternal homes.
Woe to me! crying and moaning I said.
I am beside myself.
Oh, he’s gone
The Plato of this century!

The Greek scholar’s long life in India was the first attempt to rekindle ties that dated back to pre-Christian times. Concerted efforts have been made by academia in Greece and India to remember and celebrate the legacy of Galanos. In 2000, a Dimitrios Galanos Chair of Hellenic Studies was established at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, while in 2016 the Center for Indian and Indo-Hellenic Studies in Athens was established to study cultures, the languages ​​and traditions of India.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and journalist. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Historical and Heritage Writings for 2022.


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