What India Taught Max Muller


Jun 20, 2015, 02:52 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 10:15 AM IST

Although some of his works might lead us to conclude that Max Müller thought little of India in general and Vedic literature, in particular, his anthology India: What Can it Teach Us? conveys his genuine love for India in the twilight of his life and career.

In my two earlier pieces, I had promised to review Friedrich Max Müller’s anthology of lectures titled India: What Can it Teach Us? which may be accessed for free on Project Gutenberg’s portal. Before I review the anthology, I wish to set out a few preliminary thoughts. Those interested in decolonising the Indian mind and purging Indian history textbooks of colonial and Marxist biases must appreciate that views held by scholars and historians are not immutable. They are susceptible to change over time, and this can be attributed to several reasons, Max Müller’s views on India, Hinduism and the Vedas being a classic case in point.

While some of his views elsewhere could lead one to conclude that he thought little of Indians in general and Vedic literature in particular, his lectures and his autobiography (which too is available for free) convey the distinct impression that Müller genuinely loved India at least in the twilight of his life and career. In fact, the strong impression that a layperson with an interest in history could come away with is that Müller was convinced that not only must every student of world history necessarily undertake the study of Indian history through Sanskrit and Vedic literature, but also that there was much of value that India still had to offer to the world. Therefore, the temptation to present a monolithic picture of an individual’s body of work and his ideological proclivities is perhaps best resisted.

Importantly, assuming that Müller did not hold India, Hindus and the Vedas in high regard, should we shun his work and views merely because they aren’t palatable to us? I don’t think so. It is important for impressionable minds to be presented with a cross-section of diverse and divergent views to let them decide for themselves what they wish to put stock in. The other alternative is to deal with views which we deem uncharitable and explain our reasons for deeming so. The Leftist clique which has hitherto dominated the corridors of the MHRD is guilty of doing exactly the opposite. In Goebbels-esque fashion, the Left has refused to accommodate and attempted to silence every fact, line of enquiry and narrative which doesn’t conform to its class-obsessed worldview that teaches our students to selectively loathe and be ashamed of the “class enemies” of the Left. I think the Indic Right must remember that its goals are not limited to responding to Leftist propaganda and, therefore, it should not succumb to the tantalising temptation to cherry-pick history.

The larger vision, which must be achieved through honest scholarship, is to bring to light those aspects of this land’s ancient history which instill national pride in the average citizen, regardless of his creed, and teach him to draw inspiration from the past without pixelating the collective mistakes committed. Critically, in the process of instilling national pride, the Indic Right should not unwittingly encourage an insular worldview which refuses to acknowledge the achievements of other cultures and their influence on the Bharatiya way(s) of life. In a nutshell, the goal must be to produce fearless, secure, confident and open-minded individuals who are rooted in the culture of this land and become its proud ambassadors.

The anthology consists of seven lectures titled “What can India teach us?”, “On the truthful character of the Hindus”, “The human interest of Sanskrit literature”, “Objections”, “The Lessons of the Veda”, “Vedic Deities” and, finally, “Veda and Vedanta”. It is important to note that although these lectures were specially addressed to British candidates for the Indian Civil Service in the late nineteenth century, the questions Müller asks and the issues he addresses in the first lecture, in particular, are relevant even today. For instance, he asks in the first lecture:

“Why should a study of Greek or Latin—of the poetry, the philosophy, the laws and the art of Greece and Italy—seem congenial to us, why should it excite even a certain enthusiasm, and command general respect, while a study of Sanskrit, and of the ancient poetry, the philosophy, the laws, and the art of India is looked upon, in the best case, as curious, but is considered by most people as useless, tedious, if not absurd?… A scholar who studies Sanskrit in Germany is supposed to be initiated in the deep and dark mysteries of ancient wisdom, and a man who has travelled in India, even if he has only discovered Calcutta, or Bombay, or Madras, is listened to like another Marco Polo. In England a student of Sanskrit is generally considered a bore, and an old Indian civil servant, if he begins to describe the marvels of Elephanta or the Towers of Silence, runs the risk of producing a count-out.”

Based on the above, it appears that we have inherited the attitude (which swings between indifference and contempt) of our erstwhile colonial masters towards Sanskrit or anything “Sanskritic”, while remaining partial to anything “Tehzeebic” because the latter is supposedly “secular” and “inclusive”. Importantly, the fact that Müller’s question is still relevant is unfortunate, to say the least. The fault lies partly with the Left for demonizing Sanskrit with the bogey of “Saffronization”, and partly with the self-proclaimed protectors and lovers of Sanskrit for not getting their act together to free Sanskrit from the shackles of Left-wing stereotypes and to make its study more appealing to successive generations of Indians.

The good news is, Müller furnishes multiple reasons to justify his exhortation to learn Sanskrit and to study its literature. Sample a few:

“I shall not attempt to prove that Sanskrit literature is as good as Greek literature. Why should we always compare? A study of Greek literature has its own purpose, and a study of Sanskrit literature has its own purpose; but what I feel convinced of, and hope to convince you of, is that Sanskrit literature, if studied only in a right spirit, is full of human interests, full of lessons which even Greek could never teach us, a subject worthy to occupy the leisure, and more than the leisure, of every Indian civil servant; and certainly the best means of making any young man who has to spend five-and-twenty years of his life in India, feel at home among the Indians, as a fellow-worker among fellow-workers, and not as an alien among aliens.”

The profundity of Sanskrit and its ability to resonate with all Indians find endorsement in this view of Müller. Here are his views on the study of Hindu mythology:

“The study of Mythology has assumed an entirely new character, chiefly owing to the light that has been thrown on it by the ancient Vedic Mythology of India. But though the foundation of a true Science of Mythology has been laid, all the detail has still to be worked out and could be worked out nowhere better than in India.”

On the importance of the study of the Vedas for a student of human history, he says:

“That (Vedic and Buddhistic) literature opens to us a chapter in what has been called the Education of the Human Race, to which we can find no parallel anywhere else. Whoever cares for the historical growth of our language, that is, of our thoughts; whoever cares for the first intelligible development of religion and mythology; whoever cares for the first foundation of what in later times we call the sciences of astronomy, metronomy, grammar, and etymology; whoever cares for the first intimations of philosophical thought, for the first attempts at regulating family life, village life, and state life, as founded on religion, ceremonial, tradition and contract (samaya)—must in future pay the same attention to the literature of the Vedic period as to the literatures of Greece and Rome and Germany.”

On what he thought of India:

“You will now understand why I have chosen as the title of my lectures, “What can India teach us?” True, there are many things which India has to learn from us, but there are other things, and, in one sense, very important things, which we too may learn from India.

If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow—in some parts a very paradise on earth—I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant—I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life—again I should point to India.”

At a time when corruption is rampant and we ourselves are prone to assuming every Indian (at least in public life) as dishonest until proven otherwise, here’s what Müller had to say on the truthful character of Hindus:

“It was from a simple sense of justice that I felt bound to quote this testimony of Colonel Sleeman as to the truthful character of the natives of India when left to themselves. My interest lies altogether with the people of India, when left to themselves, and historically I should like to draw a line after the year one thousand after Christ. When you read the atrocities committed by the Mohammedan conquerors of India from that time to the time when England stepped in and, whatever may be said by her envious critics, made, at all events, the broad principles of our common humanity respected once more in India, the wonder, to my mind, is how any nation could have survived such an Inferno without being turned into devils themselves.

Now, it is quite true that during the two thousand years which precede the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, India has had but few foreign visitors, and few foreign critics; still it is surely extremely strange that whenever, either in Greek, or in Chinese, or in Persian, or in Arab writings, we meet with any attempts at describing the distinguishing features in the national character of the Indians, regard for truth and justice should always be mentioned first.”

On the much-reviled idol worship by Hindus, Müller demonstrates his grasp of human psychology thus:

“But that Self, that Highest Self, the Paramâtman, could be discovered after a severe moral and intellectual discipline only, and those who had not yet discovered it were allowed to worship lower gods, and to employ more poetical names to satisfy their human wants. Those who knew the other gods to be but names or persons—personae or masks, in the true sense of the word—pratîkas, as they call them in Sanskrit—knew also that those who worshipped these names or persons, worshipped in truth the Highest Self, though ignorantly. This is a most characteristic feature in the religious history of India. Even in the Bhagavadgîtâ, a rather popular and esoteric exposition of Vedântic doctrines, the Supreme Lord or Bhagavan himself is introduced as saying: “Even those who worship idols, worship me.”

In the final lecture on Veda and Vedanta, he says:

“This fundamental idea is worked out with systematic completeness in the Vedânta philosophy, and no one who can appreciate the lessons contained in Berkeley’s philosophy, will read the Upanishads and the Brahmasûtras, and their commentaries without feeling a richer and a wiser man…”

He then goes on to quote Schopenhaeur:

“…In the whole world, there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life—it will be the solace of my death.”

Again, in conclusion, he reiterates the importance of studying Sanskrit and its literature thus:

“I do not mean to say that everybody who wishes to know how the human race came to be what it is, how language came to be what it is, how religion came to be what it is, how manners, customs, laws, and forms of government came to be what they are, how we ourselves came to be what we are, must learn Sanskrit, and must study Vedic Sanskrit. But I do believe that not to know what a study of Sanskrit, and particularly a study of the Veda, has already done for illuminating the darkest passages in the history of the human mind, of that mind on which we ourselves are feeding and living, is a misfortune, or, at all events, a loss, just as I should count it a loss to have passed through life without knowing something, however little, of the geological formation of the earth, or of the sun, and the moon, and the stars—and of the thought, or the will, or the law, that govern their movements.”

Although I am no expert on Max Müller’s vast and phenomenal body of work and the controversies surrounding his theories, as a layperson if I had to recommend a book as mandatory reading as part of the decolonization project, this anthology would certainly be right up there. Finally, I think it’s high time we invested serious, concerted and persistent efforts in increasing the quantity and quality of Indic scholarship. Even if we are not entirely convinced of Müller’s respect and love for Sanskrit and the Vedas and are tempted to brand him “an agent of the British”, there’s a lot to learn from his dogged pursuit of his goals.

Sai is an engineer-turned-Advocate, High Court of Delhi. He is founder of the “blawg” “The Demanding Mistress” and tweets @jsaideepak.

Get Swarajya in your inbox.