THE ASIATIC SOCIETY was established on 15 January 1784, its founder
Sir William Jones (1746-1794) began his work with a dream, that
visualised a centre for Asian studies including almost everything
concerning man and nature within the geographical limits of the
continent. Most of the mysteries of this vast land, like its old
inscriptions in Brahmi, were still undeciphered, and Comparative
Philology as a discipline or science was not yet born.
In the early days of the Asiatic Society, William Jones for all
his efforts could not procure even a slice of land wherein to
house his dream. The Society which in no time was to be regarded
as the first and best of its kind in the whole world had no permanent
address, no fixed place for holding its meetings and, which was
most disconcerting, no funds.
Sir William Jones, an outstanding scholar from Oxford, arrived
in Calcutta on 25 September 1783 as a Puisne Judge of the Old
Supreme Court. While still on board of the frigate Crococlile
carrying him from England to India, he prepared a memorandum detailing
his plan of study. This included the laws of the Hindus
and Mahomedans; the history of the ancient world; proofs and illustrations
of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics
and geography of Hindusthan; Arithmatic and Geometry and mixed
sciences of Asiaticks; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy
of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric and
morality of Asia; music of the Eastern nations; the best accounts
of Tibet and Kashmir; trade, manufactures, agriculture and commerce
of India: Mughal constitution, Marhatta constitution etc."
This memorandum could easily be regarded as an early draft of
the memorandum of the Asiatic Society itself. The Society which
was still in the imagination of Jones was actually founded within
four months of his arrival in India.
William Jones was, however, not the earliest among the Orientalists
of the East India Company to arrive in India. About a decade earlier
came Charles Wilkins (1770), Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1772) and
Jonathan Duncan (1772):Warren Hastings's "bright young men",who
had paved the way for the two future institutions- The Asiatic
Society and the College at Fort William. All the Orientalists
who became famous in history clustered around either the Society
or the College or both. The Society, of course, was the pioneer
and first in the field.
While others were thinking in terms of individual study and research,
Sir William Jones was the first man to think in terms of a permanent
organisation for Oriental studies and researches on a grand scale
in this country. He took the initiative and in January 1784 sent
out a circular letter to selected persons of the elite with a
view to establishing a Society for this purpose. In response to
his letter, thirty European gentlemen of Calcutta including Mr.
Justice John Hyde, John Carnac, Henry Vansittart, John Shore,
Charles Wilkins, Francis Gladwin, Jonathan Duncan and others gathered
on 15 January 1784 in the Grand Jury Room of the old Supreme Court
of Calcutta. The Chief Justice Sir Robert Chambers presided at
the first meeting and Jones delivered his first discourse in which
he put forward his plans for the Society.
he said, was the "nurse of sciences" and the "inventress
of delightful and useful arts." He proposed to found a Society
under the name of The Asiatic Society. All the thirty European
gentlemen who had assembled accepted the membership of this Society.
The name went through a number of changes like The Asiatic
Society (1784-1825), The Asiatic
Society (1825-1832), The Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832-1935),
The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1936-1951) and The Asiatic
Society again since July 1951.