The 1760s would have been a very good time to live within the confines of the Russian Empire. Catherine the Great (Catherine II) had just begun a reign that would last over four decades. It was a time when new cities were built out of scratch and Russia would expand to deep within northeast Asia. The earliest part of Catherine’s rule led to an openness that attracted intellectuals, traders and adventurers seeking fortune in a country that was on the verge of becoming a major European power.
In Astrakhan, a city by the Caspian Sea, there lived a community of 300 Indians, who formed a visible minority in what was then a town of 10,000 inhabitants. The sight of a Marwari or Khatri probably prompted Alexander Pushkin to describe the mixture of clothes, languages, faces and ethnicities he saw in Astrakhan. The Indian traders brought with them copies of the Bhagavad Gita. Russian etcher Yemelyan Korneev depicted the prayer rituals of the Vaishnav Khatris in Astrakhan, and an assistant of German-born botanist and zoologist Peter Pallas also wrote about the practicing Hindus of Astrakhan.
Russian historians are of the belief that the first copy of the Bhagavad Gita reached the country centuries before Indians immigrated to Astrakhan. Scholars say that Mughals gifted the Hindu holy book to Ivan the Terrible (1530-84). There is neither a trace of that copy nor of those possessed by Indian traders in the 17th century. However by the end of the 18th century, the Bhagavad Gita would become widely known in Russia.
New wave of Russian scholars
In 1755, seven years before Catherine II became empress, a polymath by the name of Mikhail Lomonosov founded the Moscow University (now Moscow State University). The university helped churn out some of the brightest intellectuals in 18th century Russia, among them, Nikolay Novikov, a writer, publisher and philanthropist who was a face of Russia’s Enlightenment.
A man of varied interests, Novikov set out to enhance the cultural and educational level of the Russian public. He was also instrumental in preserving a great deal of pre-Romanov Dynasty Russian history. His endeavours were initially backed by Catherine II.
Rumoured to be a Freemason, Novikov’s publishing ventures were widely believed to have been sponsored by Russian Freemasons. His interests spread far and beyond Imperial Russia, and he was responsible for the popularisation of William Shakespeare’s work in Russia.
Although the travels of Afanasy Nikitin of Tver to India in the late 15th century helped evoke a tremendous amount of interest in India, it was only in the 19th century that Indology became a popular subject among the Russian intelligentsia. It is unclear how Novikov developed an interest in the Bhagavad Gita.
Russian Bhagavad Gita
In his quest to publish the first Russian translation of the Gita, Novikov had the patronage of Catherine II and the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. At that time, most of the information that Russia got about India was from the East India Company, which occupied large swathes of land in the subcontinent. It was through the Company that Novikov managed to get a copy of TheBhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, which was translated by Charles Wilkins and first published in London in 1785.
To translate the English translation of the Gita into Russian, Novikov sought the services of Alexander Petrov, who wrote articles in Utrenniy Svet (translates as morning light), a magazine that was published by Novikov. Petrov, also a graduate of Moscow University, was a linguist who was fluent in German and English. He had translated New Chrysomander, a Masonic text from German to Russian. Just three years after the translation by Wilkins was published in London, the Russian translation was available. Although a large number of Hindu and Indian texts made their way into the Russian language via German translations, the Gita was published in Russian 15 years before the first German translation was out.
In the preface of first Russian Bhagavad Gita, a word of gratitude is given to the East India Company by the publisher: ‘This book was published with the permission of the Meeting of Directors of the East India Company, at the request and approval of the Indian Governor General, whose letter to the President of the Company sufficiently explains the reasons that prompted the publication of the book, and serves as the best evidence of the faithfulness, accuracy and dignity of the translator. The antiquity of the original and the reverence in which it has been kept for many centuries by a noble part of the human race make this book one of the most noteworthy books that were offered to the scientific world until now. ‘
The Russian Orthodox Church encouraged the reading of the translation. The church called the Gita a “soulful book.” The Russian version of the Gita found takers among the intelligentsia of St Petersburg and Moscow and also among philosophers.
Novikov would be denied the opportunity to publish a Russian version of Heetopades of Veeshnoo-Sarma, a translation of the Hitopadesh by Wilkins. Less than a year after the Russian Bhagavad Gita was published, France witnessed a revolution, and Catherine II, fearful of a similar fate, changed her attitude towards Novikov.
The empress confiscated his printing press and had Novikov incarcerated (without a formal trial) in Shlisselburg Fortress, a fortification on an island in Lake Ladoga, near St Petersburg.
As a part of this purge on Novikov and other intellectuals, many of the books he published were pulped. He remained in prison for 15 years and was only released after the death of Catherine II. After Emperor Paul released him, Novikov was too traumatised and broken to resume his publishing activities.
The Russian Gita managed to survive the purges of Catherine II, as she did not see any sentiments in the books that would lead to a French-style revolution.
Later Russian editions of the Gita
Although the Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg became one of the major centres of Sanskrit scholarship in the 19th century, most eminent scholars focused on epics like the Ramayana, Buddhism and Sanskrit literature. Those interested in the Bhagavad Gita referred to Novikov’s edition as well as German and English translations.
Leo Tolstoy read the Gita in the beginning of the 20th century. In a letter to SR Chitel, dated February 3rd, 1909, the author of War and Peace mentioned the ‘position of the Bhagavad-Gita that a person should direct all his spiritual forces to fulfil his duty.’ Tolstoy wrote:
‘I firmly believe this and always try remember this and act accordingly, and also say it to those who ask my opinion, and express it in their writings.’
It was only in 1907 that another Russian translation of the Hindu holy book was published by Theosophists Anna Kamenskaya and Irma Mantsiarli. Their translation was published in Russian in the St Petersburg Journal of Theosophy and republished as a book in 1914. The translation was criticised by Russian scholars as it was translated into Russian from the English translation of Annie Besant and Bhagwan Das. Two years later, another translation from English by AP Kaznachaeev was met with similar disapproval.
Even Novikov would not be spared of criticism for his efforts. Although his translation was a path-breaker for Indology in Russia, and led to immense scholarship of India, Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit, Russian Indologists have called it flawed. “I would not recommend getting to know the Gita through this (Novikov’s) version,” historian Boris Falikov told the Moskvoskiye Novosti newspaper in 2011. “The brilliant translation of Vsevolod Sementsov, which succeeded not only in conveying religious depths, but also the overwhelming Sanskrit slokas with sonorous Russian verse, is an entirely different matter.”
Sementsov, who was a Soviet Indologist, had much more access to Sanskrit texts and learning, as he lived in the 20th century when Indology was popular and received a great deal of funding in Russia, while Novikov could only rely on Wilkins’ translation of the Gita.
Both Russia and India should celebrate Nikolay Novikov’s legacy given that he was one of the first cultural bridges between the countries.