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Max Müller

Friedrich Max Müller (December 6, 1823October 28, 1900), more commonly known as Max Müller, was a German Orientalist, one of the founders of Indian studies, who virtually created the discipline of comparative religion. Müller wrote both scholarly and a popular works on this subject, a discipline he introduced to the British reading public, and the Sacred Books of the East, a massive, 50-volume set of English translations prepared under his direction, stands as an enduring monument to Victorian scholarship.

Contents

Life and work

He was the son of the Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller, whose verse Schubert had set to music in his song-cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Müller knew Felix Mendelssohn and had Carl Maria von Weber as a godfather, but at Leipzig University he left his early interest in music for Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India. He published work in Sanskrit linguistics that students still read and use.

Müller went to England in 1846 and became a member of Christ Church, Oxford in 1851, when he gave his first series of lectures on comparative philology. He gained appointments as Taylorian Professor of Modern European Languages in 1854 and as Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford. Defeated in the 1860 competition for the tenured Chair of Sanskrit, he later became Oxford's first Professor of Comparative Theology (1868 – 1875). In his time, some circles considered his teaching of comparative religion as subversive of morality. According to Monsignor Munro, the Roman Catholic bishop of St. Andrews Cathedral in Glasgow, the lectures repesented nothing less than "a crusade against divine revelation, against Jesus Christ and Christianity". Muller attempted to reach a philosophy of religion that addressed the crisis of faith that was engendered by the historical and critical study of religion by German scholars on the one hand, and by the Darwinian revolution on the other (compare Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"). He analyzed mythologies as rationalizations of natural phenomena, primitive beginnings that we might denominate "protoscience" within a cultural evolution; Muller's "Darwinian" concepts of the evolution of human cultures are among his least lasting achievements.

Müller shared many of the ideas associated with Romanticism, which coloured his account of ancient religions, in particular his emphasis on the formative influence on early religion of emotional communion with natural forces.

Müller's Sanskrit studies came at a time when scholars had started to see language development in relation to cultural development. The recent discovery of the Indo-European (IE) language group had started to lead to much speculation about the relationship between Greco-Roman cultures and those of more ancient peoples. In particular the Vedic culture of India was thought to have been the ancestor of European Classical cultures, and scholars sought to compare the genetically related European and Asian languages in order to reconstruct the earliest form of the root-language. The Vedic language, Sanskrit, was thought to be the oldest of the IE languages. Müller therefore devoted himself to the study of this language, becoming one of the major Sanskrit scholars of his day. Müller believed that the earliest documents of Vedic culture should be studied in order to provide the key to the development of pagan European religions, and of religious belief in general. To this end Müller sought to understand the most ancient of Vedic scriptures, the Rig-Veda.

For Müller, however, the study of the language had to relate to the study of the culture in which it had been used. He came to the view that the development of languages should be tied to that of belief-systems. At that time the Vedic scriptures were little-known in the West, though there was increasing interest in the philosophy of the Upanishads. Müller believed that the sophisticated Upanishadic philosophy could be linked to the more primitive Vedic paganism from which it evolved. He had to travel to London in order to look at documents held in the collection of the British East India Company. While there he persuaded the company to allow him to undertake a critical edition of the Rig-Veda, a task he pursued doggedly over many years (1849 - 1874), and which resulted in the critical edition for which he is most remembered.

He supported himself at first with creative writing, his novel German Love being popular in its day. Müller's connections with the East India Company and with Sanskritists based at Oxford University led to a career in Britain, where he eventually became the leading intellectual commentator on the culture of India, which Britain controlled as part of its Empire. This led to the development of links with Indian intellectuals, notably the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, and to syncretist attempts to unite Christian and Hindu traditions. Modern Indians have both praised and vilified these activities.

For Müller, the culture of the Vedic peoples represented a form of nature worship, an idea clearly influenced by Romanticism. He saw the gods of the Rig-Veda as active forces of nature, only partly personified as imagined supernatural persons. From this claim Müller derived his theory that mythology is 'a disease of language'. By this he meant that myth transforms concepts into beings and stories. In Müller's view 'gods' began as words constructed in order to express abstract ideas, but were transformed into imagined personalities. Thus the Indo-European father-god appears under various names: Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus Pita. For Müller all these names can be traced to the word 'Dyaus', which he understands to imply 'shining' or 'radiance'. This leads to the terms 'deva', 'deus', 'theos' as generic terms for a god, and to the names 'Zeus' and 'Jupiter' (derived from deus-pater). In this way a metaphor becomes personified and ossified. This aspect of Müller's thinking close resembled the later ideas of Nietzsche.

Nevertheless Müller's work contributed to the developing interest in Aryan culture which set Indo-European ('Aryan') traditions in opposition to Semitic religions. He was deeply saddened by the fact that these later came to be expressed in racist terms. This was far from Müller's own intention. For Müller the discovery of common Indian and European ancestry was a powerful argument against racism.

His wife, Georgina Adelaide (died 1916) had his papers and correspondence carefully bound; they are at the Bodleian Library, Oxford [1] (http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/muller/maxmuller.html) The Goethe Institutes in India are named Max Mueller Bhavan in his honour.

Quotations

"If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered over 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 who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of the Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the 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...again I should point to India."

"The Upanishads are the ... sources of ... the Vedanta philosophy, a system in which human speculation seems to me to have reached its very acme." "I spend my happiest hours in reading Vedantic books. They are to me like the light of the morning, like the pure air of the mountains - so simple, so true, if once understood."

Max-Muller's opinions about Veda :- (1) "Large number of Vedic hymns are childish in the extreme ; tedious, low, commonplace." [Reference:'Chips from a German Workshop', second edition, 1866, p. 27.]

(2) "Nay, they (the Vedas) contain, by the side of simple, natural, childish thoughts, many ideas which to us sound modern, or secondary and tertiary." [Reference:'India, What can it teach us', Lecture IV, p. 118, 1882.]

References

  • Lourens P. van den Bosch, Friedrich Max Müller: A Life Devoted to the Humanities, 2002. Recent biography sets him in the context of Victorian intellectual culture.

See also

External links

eo:Max MÜLLER fr:Max Müller sv:Friedrich Max Müller

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