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by George Ruckert

The Shot Heard ‘round the World

In Concord, Mass, there is a monument erected at one end of the famous Old North Bridge, site of the opening conflict of the American Revolution in 1775.  A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is on monument, erected in 1875 to commemorate the anniversary, begins:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here the embattled farmers stood,

And first the shot heard round the world.

The shot, of course, has had a distinguished career, and revolutions in the name of freedom have followed for the last 200 years and more.  But one of the more immediate results of the Revolution was the defeat of the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.  Far from being censured, his next appointment was as Governor-General of India in 1786.  He was charged with establishing tax and judicial codes in India which would give the English a financial foundation, as well as helping Hindus plead their judicial cases in Muslim states, and Muslims in Hindu ones. In India he linked up with the recently-arrived barrister Sir William Jones, who was a brilliant linguist also serving the English crown in Calcutta.

Jones was intoxicated when he delved into the extensive richness of the Sanskrit language and its literature.  To help collect, translate, and disseminate this literature, Jones had founded the Asiatic (later the Oriental) Society in 1784.  He translated a minor treatise on Indian music (lost: the Sangita-sara?) and wrote one of the first articles by a westerner on Indian music:  On the Musical Modes of the Hindus (1799).

The Oriental Society was responsible for the first western (English and German) translations of the great books of the Vedic and Sanskrit traditions, including the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, etc.

When these reached the West, philosophers and literati took note, and Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists, and many European philosophers, among them Kant and Schopenhauer, took great interest.  They paved the way for more specific practitioners of the Hindu philosophies, notably, Madame Blavatsky (Theosophism), Vivekananda (the Vendanta Society), and Inayat Khan (Sufism), to travel to the West.

It would only be a short time when music and dance, led by such artists as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Chitresh Das would plant the West with deep-seeded knowledge and practice in these same fields first plowed and prepared by the early pioneers.