Hermann Oldenberg (1854-1920), a prominent German Indologists from the turn of the 20th century, is known for perpetuating the concept of the “Aryan Race” and its inherent superiority in relation to other non-Aryan races, especially the Semitic, which was soon to have devastating consequences, resulting in the Jewish Holocaust.
True to the German tradition of scholarship in Indology, he promoted devastatingly fanciful speculations about races, ethnicities, religions, philology, linguistics, and history dressed up in the language of science and scholarship. Never trained as a Philosopher, Oldenberg ignored the philosophical content of the Hindu scriptures and merely treated them as historical documents. replicating the now thoroughly discredited theory of the Aryan invasion of India and holding that contemporary Hinduism was the byproduct of the racial inter-mixing of the Aryans who came from outside India, i.e., from somewhere in Europe and the aboriginal natives of India, thereby rendering all Hindus as a hopelessly degenerate race of people, who had lost their struggle to maintain their racial purity, unlike the Germans Aryan counterparts who had retained it.
Artfully camouflaged in respectable academic language, Oldenberg’s signal accomplishment was the continued projection of a racial history onto the Sanskrit, Pali, and other texts of India, consistent with the speculations of his predecessors, and constructing, i.e., literally making up, inventing a history that reflected his 19th-century German preoccupations and anxieties regarding racial hierarchies and racial purity.
As this article will show, his entire body of academic work is filled with unmitigated bigotry. His singular focus is on convincing himself of the inherent superiority of his “Aryan” heritage, and he tries to accomplish this by demeaning and vilifying Hindu scriptures and traditions.
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Hermann Oldenberg – Purveyor of the Aryan Race Theory
Hermann Oldenberg was the son of a Protestant clergyman and was born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 31, 1854. His father was a Pastor and principal secretary of the Central Committee of the Inner Mission. Hermann Oldenberg studied Classical Philology and Indology at Georg-August University in Göttingen and Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin. He completed his doctoral studies in classical and Indic philology in 1875 at the University of Berlin with a dissertation on the Arval Brothers, an ancient Roman cult fraternity. He submitted his habilitation thesis in Sanskrit Philology under the guidance of Albrecht Weber in Berlin in 1878. He went on to become a Professor of Indology at the Christian Albrechts University of Kiel in 1889 and rector in the years 1906-07. In 1908 he moved to the Georg August University of Göttingen, where he became a professor of Indology from 1908 until his death on March 18, 1920. He was a corresponding member from 1890 and a full member from 1909 of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. In 1912 and 1913, he visited India, where he studied briefly.
Hermann Oldenberg’s early scholarly interests lay with Buddhism, and he published an edition and translation of the Śāṅkhayana Gṛhyasūtra in 1878 when he was only 24 years old, and translated into English the important Pali chronicle, the Dīpavaṁsa, in 1879. While previous decades of nineteenth-century European Buddhist research had focused on Mahāyāna Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, Hermann Oldenberg focused his attention on the Pali Buddhist texts, resulting in the 1881 study entitled Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde, based on Pāli texts, which was translated into an English edition by William Hoey as “The Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order,” (London, 1882). This work on the Buddha by Oldenberg has remained influential and was translated into French and Russian as well. Working with T. W. Rhys Davids, founder of the Pali Text Society, during the years 1879-1883, he edited and translated into English three volumes of Theravada Vinaya texts, called Vinayapitaka (“Discipline Basket”) of the Pali Tipitaka, an important text with rules for life in Buddhist monasteries, which were later published in the Sacred Books of the East edited by Friedrich Max Müller, at Oxford University.
Oldenberg turned later towards the Vedic texts and published the book Die Hymnen des Rigveda (1888), Die Religion des Veda (1894), and Ṛgveda: Textkritische and exegetische Noten (1909–1912). With his Prolegomena (1888), he laid the groundwork for the philological study of the Rigveda  using the historical-critical German method. He translated two volumes of the Vedic texts, i.e., “The Gṛhyasūtras: Rules of Vedic Domestic Ceremonies” (Oxford, 1886–1892) and two volumes of the “Hymns to Agni” of Vedic Hymns (Oxford, 1897) in the same Sacred Books of the East series. His book “The Religion of the Veda” (1894) was followed by three of his general essays that were published together as Ancient India (Chicago, 1898), which was followed by the book “The Literature of Ancient India,” which appeared in 1903, in which he discussed the Upanishads, the Brahmanas, and the Mahabharata.
Hermann Oldenberg is further memorialized through Klaus Janert’s careful two-volume edition of his Kleine Schriften (Wiesbaden,1967), which includes full texts of more than one hundred articles and an exhaustive bibliography. In the Western, typically Eurocentric recounting, Oldenberg was one of the leading Indologists of his age whose work is celebrated even today as an imposing legacy of meticulous scholarship, in which he not only used linguistic methods but also used ethnology as an auxiliary science for his interpretations. He is celebrated for trying to reconstruct the original text of the Rigveda, which had been handed down orally by priestly families over many generations before it was put into writing. He is eulogized for being a meticulous and methodical scholar who kept himself apart from the fantasy and bold hypotheses but attained important results with minute analysis. Apparently, through Hermann Oldenberg’s efforts, the sustained historical and literary inquiry into Vedic and Buddhist religions attained maturity, and his achievements in Vedic studies were even more consequential than his contributions to Buddhist studies. His persisting efforts to unveil the earliest stages of India’s religious thought and history, his rigorous philological method, and the degree to which he integrated insights from other disciplines in the Western imagination stand as important monuments that will apparently continue to inform and guide research.
While it cannot be doubted that Hermann Oldenberg made many significant contributions to the tradition (parmpara) of German Indology in the German language, which examined the ancient texts of India, from a historical perspective, he exemplified the Philological method of the German tradition and reinforced many of the principal hypotheses generated by Indologists working in Germany in the 19th century. He fortified and perpetuated the concept of the “Aryan Race” and its inherent superiority in relation to other non-Aryan races, especially the Semitic, which was soon to have devastating consequences, resulting in the Jewish Holocaust two decades after his death. True to the German tradition of scholarship in Indology, he did an exceptional job of presenting utterly fantastic speculations about races, ethnicities, religions, philology, linguistics, and history dressed up in the language of science and scholarship. He was never trained as a Philosopher and scrupulously avoided exploring the philosophical content of the texts of India in the way the traditional Hindu scholars interpreted their texts. Instead, he relentlessly historicized his subject matter, replicating the theory of the Aryan invasion of India and held that contemporary Hinduism was the byproduct of the racial inter-mixing of the Aryans who came from outside India i.e., from somewhere in Europe and the aboriginal natives of India, thereby rendering all Hindus as a hopelessly degenerate race of people, who had lost their struggle to maintain their racial purity, unlike the Germans Aryan counterparts who had retained it.
The Main Ideas of Hermann Oldenberg
Hermann Oldenberg’s signal accomplishment was the continued projection of a racial history onto the Sanskrit, Pali, and other texts of India, consistent with the speculations of his predecessors, and constructing, i.e., literally making up, inventing a history that reflected his 19th-century German preoccupations and anxieties regarding racial hierarchies and racial purity. In this section, we will sample a collection of his ideas, in his own words, that served to build up the German story about India and Hinduism, i.e., how the Aryans lost their memory and then the purity that they originally possessed before they entered into India, and gradually degenerated into the Hindus of today. Buddhism fought against Hinduism and triumphed for a period of time, but Hinduism ultimately fought back and regained its dominance.
The Birth of the Hindu
Buddhism has disappeared from its homeland. What has triumphed is the power we call ‘Hinduism’. Its Gods are misshapen, wild, cruel, lascivious Hindu Gods, at their head Shiva and Vishnu. Its books are the gigantic epic, the Mahabharata, and an unsurveyable host of literature of epic poems, legendary works, narratives, fairy tales, dramas. Everywhere we find how this people, this faith, this literature, whose familial context, pointing to the West, clearly appears in the old period, distanced itself ever further from those origins in the course of centuries. A transformation that affects the innermost core of the people, of the soul of the people. Mixing with the dark-colored aboriginals transforms the invaders, causes the Aryan to turn into the Hindus.
The Indian Aryans “Forgot”
The Aryan population of India came into the peninsula, as is well known, from the northwest. This immigration lay already in the remote past at the time to which the oldest monuments which we have of religious poetry belong. The Indians had as completely lost the memory of this as the corresponding events had been forgotten by the Greeks and Italians. Fair Aryans pressed on and broke down the strongholds of the aboriginal inhabitants, the “black-skinned,” the “lawless,” and “godless.” The enemy was driven back, annihilated, or subjugated.
The Degeneration of the Vedic Aryans
We are unable to fix any graduated series of dates, either by years or by centuries, indicating the progress of this victorious campaign, in which Aryans and Vedic culture overran the Gangetic valley. But what is more important, we are able from the layers of Vedic literature which overlie each other, to gather some idea of how, under the influences of a new home, of Indian nature and Indian climate, a change came over the life of the People…
The Role of Climate in Degeneration
In the sultry, moist, tropical lands of the Ganges, highly endowed by nature with rich gifts, the people who were in the prime of youthful vigour when they penetrated hither from the north, soon ceased to be young and strong. Men and peoples come rapidly to maturity in that land, like the plants of the tropical world, only just as rapidly to fall asleep both bodily and spiritually. The sea with its invigorating breeze, and the school of noble national energy, play no part in the life of the Indians.
The Loss of Vitality
The Indian has above all, at an early stage, turned aside from that which chiefly preserves a people young and healthy, from the battle and struggle for home, country, and law. The thought of freedom with all the quickening, and, it is true, also with all the deadly powers which it brings in its train, has always been unknown and incomprehensible in India… The Indians are wholly strangers to the highest interests and ideals which are at the basis of all healthy national life.
From Reality to Fancy
Will and action are overgrown by thought. But when once the internal balance is disarranged and the natural relationship between the spirit and the reality of the world is disturbed, thought has no longer the power to take a wholesome grasp of what is wholesome. Whatever is, appears to the Indian worthless compared to the marginal illuminations with which his fancy surrounds it, and the images of his fancy grow in tropical luxuriance, shapeless and distorted, and turn eventually with terrific power against their creator.
Excessively Crushing “Contemplation”
To him, the true world, hidden by the images of his own dreams, remains an unknown, which he is unable to trust and over which he has no control: life and happiness in this world break down under the burden of excessively crushing contemplation of the hereafter. The visible manifestation of the world to come in the midst of the present world is the caste of the Brahmans, who have knowledge and power, who can open and shut to man the approach to the gods and make friends or enemies for him above.
The Evil Genius of Brahminism
No one can understand the course which Indian thought has taken, without keeping in view the picture, with its lights and shadows, of this order of philosophers, as the Greeks named the Brahmanical caste… which has shaped the determinative fundamental thoughts for the intellectual efforts of a subsequent age and … this priestly class was something more than vain and greedy priestcraft … it was the necessary form in which the innermost essence, the evil genius, if we may so call it, of the Indian people has embodied itself.
The Great Confederacy of Brahmans
Well, might riches flow into his hands by the remuneration for sacrifice, which kings and nobles gave to the Brahmans… Still, living even as a beggar, he looked on himself as exalted above earthly potentates and subjects, made of other stuff than they… They, the Brahmans, standing without the pale of the State, bind themselves together in a great confederacy, which extends as far as the ordinances of the Veda are current.
Disconnected, Yet All-Powerful Brahmins
In the strength and the weakness of the forms of life of this class of thinkers [i.e., Brahmins] lies also, as it were in a germ, the strength and weakness of their thought. They were, so to speak, banished into a self-made world, cut off from the refreshing atmosphere of real life, by nothing shaken in their unbounded belief in themselves and in their unique omnipotence, in comparison with which all that gave character to the life of others, must have appeared small and contemptible.
Disconnected from the Rest of the World
Coming from the Northwest, the light-skinned Aryans, who surpassed the mountain barriers and settled among these dark, easily conquered aboriginals, thus cut themselves off almost totally from participation in the historical enterprise of the Western world. They robbed themselves of the possibility or, minimally, they severely impaired the possibility (at least for long centuries) of enrichment through contact with nations who were either equal or superior to them in birth.
Degeneration of the Aryan into the Hindu
The deformation, if we may express ourselves thus, of Aryanhood into Hinduhood is only just beginning in the oldest monument of this literature, the hymns of the Rigveda. But it progresses rapidly … its tendency to forms that are characterized by formlessness … to bold aerial flights that escape all reality, which the thought of limitless realms of shapeless fantasmata hurriedly traverses in order, then, to sink helplessly into childlike babbling …
Aryan Gods give way to new Hindu Gods
The Aryan gods, with their human and humane forms, who were still inspired by a last breath of bracing northern air, have faded or disappeared. In their place, a new generation of Gods has entered on-stage. They are the Hindu Gods—many-headed and many-armed, ranked with snakes, resting on lotuses, enveloped by an atmosphere of mysticism, lasciviousness, and cruelty.
Exhibit A of the Thesis: The Mahabharata
The entire intellectual content of this new period is summed up in the gigantic poem, which, just as the Rgveda was the noblest work of Indian Aryanhood, can be called the great book of Hinduism: This is the epic, the Mahābhārata, the incomparably rich, colorful, chaotic, and formless expression of the Hindu popular spirit.
The Triumph of Buddhism
Buddha’s doctrine spread triumphantly. Once the petty states of ancient India had been absorbed into the gigantic empire of the Mauryan dynasty, which encompassed nearly all of India, the religious zeal of the great Mauryan king Aśoka (ca. 260 BC) let Buddhism rapidly grow into a great power. The land was covered with Buddhist buildings, with reliquary-shrines and monasteries. Buddhist missions began to cross the borders of India.
Hinduism recovers… from Buddhism
And yet, the movements through which, one day, the hegemony of the old faith, which had been shaken up, would be restored, readied themselves quite early on. Or, rather, not the old faith of the Veda, for its significance for the great religious life of India had vanished. What arose was the worship of new, all-powerful personal Gods, superficially joining up with the Veda, holding on to the connection with Brahmanism, drawing strength from the base forms of popular religion and popular superstition, which continued to live on in the trappings of Buddhism.
Hermann Oldenberg speculates about how the Hindus came to be, through a process of racial mixing between the pure white Aryan and the dark native Indian aboriginals, and then on through ongoing degeneration, and frames the Hindus in history as racially inferior, illegitimate, mixed up, inauthentic, deformed and so on. It is the supreme characteristic of Indologists that this kind of Hindudvesha does not occur to them as a racist denigration of the Hindus but rather as some heady combination of legitimate history and science. This is the Indologist’s blind spot. And when confronted by this piece of negative evidence – how can the Aryans who came to India forget where they came from? How can the Aryans have failed to remember their great triumphant entry into India and their victory over the Aboriginals of India? How could the Aboriginals have forgotten that they were defeated and driven back? For India exhibited no memory within its vast literature of such events until the Indologist came along, he only shrugs his shoulders: ‘They forgot’!
- Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 346
- G. R. Welbon, Oldenberg, Hermann, Encyclopedia.com (1987 and 2005), The content in this section is summarized from the article at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/oldenberg-hermann
- Wikipedia page on Hermann Oldenberg at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Oldenberg
- Wikipedia page in German on Hermann Oldenberg translated at: https://de.zxc.wiki/wiki/Hermann_Oldenberg
- Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), provides an exceptional reconstruction and expose of how arbitrary speculations in Indology, driven by preconceptions and hubris, dressed up in the language of science and scholarship acquired the status of uncontestable scientific knowledge, merely through relentless repetition of the claim that their method of study was somehow scientific, even though there was no consensus about the results amongst these Indologists.
- Hermann Oldenberg, Indologie, (Berlin: Internationale Wochenschrift fur Wissenschaft, Kunst und Technik, 1907), 635-644, Translated by Joydeep Bagchee, in the Nay Science
- Hermann Oldenberg, Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order (Berlin: Wilhelm Hertz, 1881)
- Hermann Oldenberg, The Literature of Ancient India: The Poetry of the Veda (1903)
- Hermann Oldenberg, The Indian Religion: Further Developments. Hinduism. (1913)