Friedrich Max Müller

German indologist (Orientalist anthropologist specialising in India) and student of comparative religion. Born 1823 in Dessau, in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. Died 1900.

The son of noted German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), Max Müller was born in the family home in No. 53 Steinstraße (no longer there, alas - the house was bombed into oblivion during World War II) in Dessau. His childhood was spent among well-educated and genteel people - his parents regularly corresponded with Goethe and Schubert (in fact, Schubert set to music several of Wilhelm Müller's folksongs). Tragically, Wilhelm Müller died at the age of 33, in 1827, when Max was still very young.

In 1841, Max Müller matriculated at the University of Leipzig, where he studied Sanskrit and classical philology. In 1843, he received his doctorate, and in the same year, his first book (a translation of the Hitopadesa) was published.

The following year, he moved to Berlin, to study philology and philosophy at the university there.

In 1845, while studying in Paris under the tutelage of Eugène Burnouf, he began work on a preliminary translation of the Rig-Veda. He soon realised that, to properly carry out his work, he needed to relocate to England. In England, he met with and befriended Baron Bunsen, who took Müller under his wing.

By 1848, Müller had settled in Oxford - which was to become his permanent home. The following year saw the publication of the first volume of the Rig-Veda, sponsored (at the behest of Baron Bunsen) by the East India Company. The prestige of this publication gained him the post of deputy professor of modern European languages in the Taylorian Chair at Oxford - and by 1854, he had advanced to the full professorship.

By now, Müller was in full flower - his considerable scholarly acumen penetrating deep into the study of Indian language and philosophy. His History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature (1859) set the standard in the field of indology. However, his political and religious views were controversial, particular in such matters as the origin of religion. Like his father, he was a poet, deeply inspired by German Romanticism, and his fascination with Indian mythology led many critics to ask whether he was, at heart, a Christian or a Hindu.

It is likely that it was this controversy that led to his being refused the Boden chair in Sanskrit, in 1860. This refusal seems to have spurred him on to new heights - in 1861, he delivered two germinal lecture series on comparative linguistics, and this gained him the newly-created Chair in Comparative Philology in 1868, a position created especially for him.

By 1874, the final volume of his monumental translation of the Rig-Veda had been published. The following year, he retired from active duty as professor. In his semi-retirement, he was as prolific as ever, translating numerous Oriental religious works, giving a series of famous Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (published 1878), and translating Kant's Kritik der Reinen Vernunft ("Critique of Pure Reason", 1881) into English. This continual and impressive production of scholasticism continued until the day of his death, after brief illness, in October 1900.

In the generations following his death, the works of Max Müller were unfortunately dragged into disrepute by the Nazi fascination with the Aryan invasion theory. However, the (West) German cultural institutes known elsewhere in the world as "Goethe Institutes", were known throughout India as "Max Müller Bhawans". In East Germany, perhaps for this reason, Max Müller remained a relatively obscure historical person, despite Dessau being located within that state's borders. It was a somewhat awkward moment for the hosts when, during a state visit to the DDR in 1976, Indira Gandhi proposed a toast to Max Müller.

As controversial as many of his ideas may be, and as abused as they may have been by other, lesser, minds, it seems a shame to consign this great scholar to oblivion. His prodigious oeuvre stands out in a field already crowded with great thinkers.

Selected works:

Data for parts of this writeup were gathered from: