- Friedrich Max Müller, a German Indologist, was hired by the East India Company to (mis)translate Hindu scriptures.
- His translations were influenced by his Christian bias and the colonial agenda.
- He is (in)famous for promulgating the Aryan Invasion Theory, with serious socio-political implications for India.
- Müller’s work contributed to the disassociation of Sanskrit from its indigenous roots and led to the marginalization of Indian linguistic and cultural heritage.
Born in 1823 in Dessau, Dessau-Roßlau, Germany, Friedrich Max Müller was the son of a musician father. The early 19th century in Germany was a time of economic hardship and social inequality, and Müller’s family experienced the harsh realities of poverty firsthand.
Growing up in difficult circumstances, Müller’s educational opportunities were limited. As a child, he primarily focused on music, following in his father’s footsteps. However, at the age of 12, Müller shifted his focus to a broader range of studies.
Road to Philology
Max Müller’s academic journey began in 1841 at Leipzig University, where he pursued philology, shifting from his initial interest in music and poetry. His fascination with classical languages, particularly Sanskrit, drove his scholarly pursuits. In 1850, he was appointed as the deputy Taylorian professor at Oxford University, providing a platform for further exploration. Despite setbacks, such as losing the election for the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in 1860, Müller achieved milestones like becoming Oxford’s first professor of comparative philology in 1868. His association with the East India Company, which supported his studies, and his introduction to Dharmic literature in Berlin played pivotal roles in his future endeavors.
Unyielding Dharma: The Great Britain’s Dilemma
Throughout history, India has withstood foreign invaders and colonizers who sought to dominate its land and religious beliefs. From Mahmud of Ghazni to the British East India Company, India’s cultural and religious identity remained resilient. Islamic invaders, despite their successes elsewhere, faced staunch resistance in India, and even the mighty Mughals had to compromise with religious sentiments. The philosophy of “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah” (Protect Dharma and Dharma will protect you) embodied the unbreakable bond between the Indian people and their spiritual beliefs. Even the British, employing strategic methods through Indologists like Max Mueller, struggled to manipulate and control the Indian populace.
A “Scholar” on East India Company Payroll
Max Müller was hired by the East India Company in 1847 to translate the Vedas and other ancient Hindu scriptures. Müller’s financial agreement with the British Empire was unusually rewarding. He was paid an extraordinary sum of four pounds per sheet of his writing, which translates to roughly $235 per page today after inflation adjustments. At that time, this was a staggering 55 times greater than the average translator’s salary, signaling the high value the British Empire placed on his work.
Müller’s unique combination of skills was highly desirable for this task. His proficiency in Sanskrit, the language of Hindu scriptures, allowed him to delve into the complex nuances of the ancient texts. His unwavering Christian faith ensured that the translations didn’t reflect the real meaning but his beliefs, his views, and views that suited his paymasters. Additionally, the unwavering attitude of Hindus necessitated Müller’s experiments with Hindu texts.
Confessions of a Hindu Hating Philologist
Max Müller’s private correspondences provide significant insight into his persona and motivations. One of the central figures in Müller’s correspondence was his wife, whom he frequently updated about his career advancements and the end of their financial troubles. He was unabashed about his role in the British Empire’s complex machinery, stating that his “duplicity in translation was praised” by his superiors, implying a clear agenda behind his translations, potentially warping the meaning of ancient Hindu texts to suit British colonial narratives.
In a letter to Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen, a noted German scholar and diplomat, Müller expressed his desire to devote a decade to learning Indian languages, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing Indian priestcraft and replacing it with Christian teachings. His words imply a plan to leverage his linguistic skills to aid Christian missionary work in India.
In his communication with the Dean of St. Paul’s, Dr. Milman, in 1867, Müller admitted his belief in the rise of Christianity in India. He noted that no country was as ripe for Christian conversion as India despite acknowledging the enormous difficulties involved.
In a candid letter to his wife, he confessed his realization that Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, played a crucial role in the country’s resistance to Christianization. He conveyed his intent to use Sanskrit itself as a tool to overcome this resistance, thus revealing his mission to interfere with India’s linguistic heritage.
Among his most damning quotes, Müller stated in 1868: “India has been conquered once, but India must be conquered again, and that second conquest should be a conquest by education… A new national literature may spring up, impregnated with Western ideas… The ancient religion of India is doomed — and if Christianity does not step in, whose fault will it be?”
Through his letters and statements, it becomes apparent that Müller bore a deep-seated bias against Hinduism and an unwavering allegiance to Christianity and colonialism. This bias would influence all his translations, potentially skewing the interpretations of Hindu scriptures.
The power of translation is immeasurable; it has the capacity to bridge linguistic divides, but it can also be weaponized. Max Müller’s work exemplifies this duality. Müller’s work significantly influenced the West’s understanding of Eastern religious texts. However, his translations distorted the original intent and context of these sacred writings.
Hired by the East India Company in the late 1840s, Müller’s career spanned over five decades. His work included the translation of the Rigveda and the ambitious “Sacred Books of the East” series. His output was voluminous, raising questions about the accuracy of his translations, considering the complexity of the original texts.
Müller’s translations were colored by his personal biases and the colonial agenda of his employers. His works were not faithful representations of the original texts, but rather interpretations skewed to denounce Hindu practices and rituals and favor Christian teachings. For instance, his interpretation of the Rigveda often skewed philosophical discussions, presenting Hinduism in a distorted light.
Let us look at the following example:
Katha Upanishad (Chapter 1, Valli 2, Verse 23)
नायमात्मा प्रवचनेन लभ्यो न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन। यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यस्तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम् ॥
Translation by Max Müller: ‘That Self, cannot be gained by the Veda, nor by understanding, nor by much learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. The Self chooses him (his body) as his own.’
Translation by Sri Aurobindo: The Self is not to be won by eloquent teaching, nor by brain power, not by much learning: but only he whom his Being chooses can win Him: for to him this Self bares His body.
Max Müller’s translation subtly modifies ‘Pravachan’ to signify ‘Veda’, a maneuver aptly rectified by Sri Aurobindo, who translates it as ‘eloquent teaching.’ This sleight of hand in Müller’s rendition tends to underplay the efficacy of the Vedas for self-realization, tacitly relegating them to a position of seeming inferiority.
Katha Upanishad (Chapter 1, Valli 2, Verse 24)
नाविरतो दुश्चरितान्नाशान्तो नासमाहितः। नाशान्तमानसो वापि प्रज्ञानेनैनमाप्नुयात् ॥
Translation by Max Müller: ‘But he who has not first turned away from his wickedness, who is not tranquil, and subdued, or whose mind is not at rest, he can never obtain the Self (even) by knowledge.’
Translation by Sri Aurobindo: None who has not ceased from doing evil, or who is not calm, or not concentrated in his being, or whose mind has not been tranquilized, can by wisdom attain to Him.
This translation exhibits a more nuanced variance. Both translations acknowledge that those engaged in wicked deeds cannot realize the ‘Atman,’ yet Müller inserts the term ‘subdued’. This suggests that without being subdued – a term evocative of external authority and suppression – the attainment of ‘Atman’ is impossible. The subtle imposition of this idea leaves one pondering – subdued by whom? The British, perhaps?
Katha Upanishad (Chapter 1, Valli 2, Verse 25)
यस्य ब्रह्म च क्षत्रं च उभे भवत ओदनः। मृत्युर्यस्योपसेचनं क इत्था वेद यत्र सः ॥
Translation by Max Müller: He to whom the sages are as meat and heroes as food for his eating and Death is an ingredient in His banquet, how thus shall one know of Him where He abides?
Translation by Sri Aurobindo: He for whom priesthood and nobility both are as food and death is as a sauce, who really knows where it is?
The third instance highlights Müller’s quiet insertion of ‘meat,’ a concept notably absent from the original Sanskrit verse. The term in Sanskrit, ‘Odan’, simply signifies rice or cooked rice, with no reference to ‘meat’ (Sanskrit: मांस, भृष्ट, घस or आमिष). Müller’s addition of ‘meat,’ largely avoided in the Indian diet at the time of his translation, subtly embeds a cultural element that strays from the original text.
Max Müller is recognized as the primary proponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). This theory postulates that the ‘Aryans’, a group of Indo-European speakers, invaded India around 1500 BCE, replacing the pre-existing Dravidian cultures. Despite a lack of robust historical, scientific, or genetic evidence, this theory found widespread acceptance for a considerable time.
AIT was more than just an academic proposition. It had significant political and social implications. Max Müller, in collaboration with his network of anthropologists, fostered this concept as a means of validating the presence and activities of Christian missionaries in India. In essence, the theory posited that the Vedic people, whom Müller labeled as ‘Aryans’, were migrants from outside India.
This hypothesis had a more sinister dimension as well. By casting the Vedic people and their language Sanskrit as foreign elements, the theory worked to generate divisions within Indian society. The local populace was made to perceive the Vedic people as intruders, and Sanskrit, the linguistic root of numerous regional languages in India (or Bharat), was discredited as an imported tongue.
Sanskrit – The Foreign Language
This narrative had far-reaching consequences, particularly in the post-independence era when linguistic identities became more prominent. Various states experienced internal conflicts over language, and these tensions were exacerbated by the attempt to disconnect Sanskrit from its Indian origins. Much of these language-related controversies can be traced back to the lasting effects of the Aryan Invasion Theory and its strategic deployment to disassociate Sanskrit and the Vedic culture from their indigenous roots in India.
In 1853, Max Müller introduced the term ‘Aryan’ to denote an external origin for India, initiating a long-term narrative that portrayed Sanskrit as a foreign language. This portrayal served a distinct purpose: to undermine and ultimately halt the learning and use of Sanskrit, thereby isolating Indians from their rich and ancient heritage. This process was not immediate but rather unfolded gradually over time.
Alongside Müller, Lord Macaulay played a significant role in this linguistic transformation by introducing English education while simultaneously orchestrating the closure of Gurukul institutions and Sanskrit educational facilities. To further propagate his narrative, Müller wrote a book entitled “Müller: Biography of Words and the Home of Aryans”. Post-independence, this narrative received an impetus under the supervision of India’s first Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, courtesy of historians with an inclination toward left-leaning ideologies.
The combined efforts of Müller and Macaulay bore fruit in 1994 when Sanskrit education was delegitimized as the original language due to an argument of mere parity resulting from the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. During a case in the Supreme Court, the Additional Solicitor General argued that if Sanskrit was to be taught in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), it could only be done so if other foreign languages, such as French, German, Arabic, and Persian, were also facilitated. This marked a pivotal moment in the reclassification of Sanskrit – the native language of India was now being equated with foreign languages like Arabic and Persian. The objective behind this argument was to remove Sanskrit education under the guise of its reclassified status as a foreign language.
Not all Villains throw punches, some (mis)translate
Max Müller played a consequential role in the internal fragmentation of India. His tool of choice was the weaponization of translation. His translations of ancient Hindu texts, marked by notable discrepancies and distortions, served to alienate Indians from their profound philosophical and cultural heritage. Moreover, his prolific output led to the widespread dissemination of these misinterpretations, further solidifying the damage.
Müller’s translations and the narratives they created have left an indelible imprint on the collective psyche of Hindu society. They have been instrumental in creating societal rifts, often pitting communities against each other and fostering a sense of cultural inferiority. The remnants of Müller’s legacy still resonate in the contemporary discourses on Indian history, religion, and culture. It has become paramount, therefore, to critically reevaluate his contributions and undertake comprehensive, unbiased translations of our ancient texts. The road to recovery for Hindu society lies in a reconnection with its rich philosophical traditions in its original, undistorted form.