Interpreting Religious Traditions

During the Enlightenment, European scholars, later called Orientalists, strove to understand Indian religions, often by comparing them to classical mythology or biblical accounts. To satisfy their curiosity, scholars translated and illustrated Indian religious texts; however, prejudice and confusion at times colored their interpretations. In his 1667 print “…About the fourteen worlds of Brahma,” the scholar Athanasius Kircher conflated the notion of brahman—or ultimate reality, visualized as divine man (purusha) within the cosmos—with the deity Brahma. He further lamented it as a “fiction” compared to the “light” of Christianity. Bernard Picart used Kircher’s print as a model for his 1723 engraving “Brahma.”

In his Interesting Historical Events Relative to … Bengal (1766–71), the British East India Company official John Holwell translated an ancient account of the creation of the world to align European conceptions of biblical time with Indian cosmology. He employed a Bengali artist to illustrate it “under the eye of a judicious Bra[h]min,” a Hindu religious teacher. The original Indian text Holwell translated is unknown, but the engraving, “Of the Creation of the Worlds,” seems to meld at least three creation myths related to the Hindu god Vishnu. The patchwork of vignettes signifies the struggle that Europeans faced trying to interpret different traditions. It also reveals the challenges Indian artists and religious teachers confronted in gleaning the goals of their European patrons.

In a sea of silvery fish, Vishnu is seen again in an 1827 hand-colored lithograph, “Nârâyana ou Vatapatrakai,” based on an earlier engraving by Pierre Sonnerat that was itself after an Indian painting.

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