Genius awakens genius: Professor Edward Byles Cowell F.B.A. (1826-1903)

Not far from where Edward Byles Cowell (EBC) discovered the beautiful Persian manuscript of Hakim Umar Khayya’m of 1460 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford that went on to become a world famous multi-million selling poem as translated, pruned, adapted and first published in 1859 by his friend Edward FitzGerald (EFG) of Woodbridge 1809-1883, EBC may have also seen & studied copies of the Ashtavakra Gita, a Sanskrit esoteric text born of India & the Hindu tradition that shares the self-same mystic insights that underpin and overarch the universally-loved Ruba’iya’t of Omar Khayya’m - OM & Omar* indeed.

India fired the imaginations of both EBC and EFG early in their lives – before they met in 1844. EFG made the acquaintance of Major Edward Moor of Great Bealings who served in India and had written The Hindu Pantheon published in 1810 (inspiring William Blake) and at the age of fifteen EBC bought a copy of a Sanskrit grammar having already mastered the Persian language aged 14! Happily sharing this knowledge with EFG, both in this country and from Calcutta, India where he was appointed Professor of Political History and Modern Economy in 1856-67 likewise becoming Principal of Sanskrit College 1858-64 and eventually first Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University.

Pop along to The Hold in Ipswich (close by where EBC was born) and you can view the Byles Cowell scrapbook containing several touching family photographs, paintings, letters and press cuttings, two of which stand out: one, stating that Professor Cowell was one of the greatest minds that East Anglia has produced and another relating the opinion of an Indian scholar that Professor Cowell was a reincarnation of a Sadhu – a Holy Man.

Do you wish to know more about this whirlwind of scholarship, this gentle, humble, splendid teacher and devout Christian who translated several Hindu and Buddhist texts which are still in print and is laid to rest alongside his wife Elizabeth in Bramford churchyard? Then dip into Wikipedia; the Life and Letters of Edward Byles Cowell by George Cowell (Macmillan & Co.); The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, four volumes (Princeton University); The Heart of Awareness by Thomas Byrom, (Shambala) and Tantra by Imma Ramos, (Thames & Hudson and The British Museum) that will lead you to further light and delight.

Charles Mugleston 

Artistic Director of the Omar Khayyam Theatre Company wide screen

[*OM (alternative AUM) is the Hindu mantra/sound which ‘Awakens’. It is said to invoke, evoke, provoke ‘All Knowledge’; and every time we say Omar, by happy coincidence/synchronicity, we repeat the Hindu mantra! Unconscious/conscious; “as gesture that rises up out of the depths of time” (R.M.Rilke}. it is a profound poetic play of sound through words, adding yet another subtle dimension of universality to the poem.]

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