Hell with Max Muller. Long live Max Muller

Rajesh Kochhar

Germany-born, Oxford-based, Sanskritist Professor Max Muller was an influential figure of his time. The eminent Indian Sanskrit scholar of the day, Rajah Radha Kant Deb, called him a Bhatt and Sanskritized his name to Moksha Muller. In 1895 when a dispute broke out between Sanatan Dharmis and Arya Samajis in the north Indian town of Vazirabad on the Shraadha ritual, both the sides agreed to send their essays to Max Muller for arbitrations. Max Muller’s reply which quoted extensively from the Vedas went in favour of the Sanatanis. At this the Arya Samajis hired drummers to pace up and the down the town claiming that Max Muller’s signatures were forged by their opponents. Significantly, no aspersions were cast on Max Muller’s credentials.

In the 19th century, archaeology was still into the future so that Indology comprised analysis of and speculation on the content of the ancient sacred texts. Max Muller conjectured that the Aryans came into India through invasion and took up the composition of the most ancient of all texts, the Rigveda, in about 1500 BCE. For this he has been severely condemned.

Max Muller also conjectured on the identity of the celebrated Rigvedc river Sarasvati. He suggested that Sarasvati be identified with the Old Ghaggar which he presumed received waters from snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna in the Vedic times. Not all scholars agreed with Max Muller on this. Alfred Hillebrandt for instance placed Rigvedic Sarasvati in Afghanistan.

Here is the irony. While Max Muller has been reviled for one of his conjectures (Aryan invasion), the Sarasvati conjecture has been not only uncritically accepted but also made into state policy and a basis for executive action.

India is very proud of its ancient heritage. And yet it is unable to develop scholarship on its own. What is worse it is still stuck in the 19th century, accepting or rejecting conjectures not on the basis of any reasoned thinking but on the basis of jerks of the knee.

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