In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that many of the ‘scholars’ of Indology should have had missionary links. In fact, one Colonel Boden even endowed a Sanskrit professorship at Oxford to facilitate the conversion of the natives to Christianity. (H.H. Wilson was the first Boden Professor followed by Monier Williams. Max Müller who coveted the position never got it. He remained bitter about it to the end of his life.)
It is widely held that Max Müller turned his back on his race theories when he began to insist that Aryan refers to language and never a race. The basis for this belief is the following famous statement he made in 1888.
I have declared again and again that if I say Aryan, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor skull nor hair; I mean simply those who speak the Aryan language. … To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan blood, Aryan race, Aryan eyes and hair is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar.
What lay behind this extraordinary vehemence from a man noted for his mild language? Was there something behind this echo of the Shakespearean “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”?
Huxley attributes Max Müller’s change of heart to the advice of his scientist friends. This is unlikely. To begin with, the science needed to refute his racial ideas did not exist at the time. Moreover, Max Müller didn’t know enough science to understand it even if it were explained it to him. The reasons for his flip flop, as always with him, were political followed by concern for his position in England, not necessarily in that order.
A closer examination of the record shows that Max Müller made the switch from race to language not in 1888 but in 1871. That incidentally was the year of German unification following Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Thereby hangs a tale.1
For more than twenty years, from 1848 to 1871, Max Müller had been a staunch German nationalist arguing for German unification. He was fond of publicity and made no secret of his political leanings in numerous letters and articles in British and European publications. German nationalists of course had embraced the notion of the Aryan nation and looked to scholars like Max Müller to provide intellectual justification. He was more than willing to cooperate.
Things changed almost overnight when Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War leading to German unification under the Prussian banner. From a fragmented landscape of petty principalities, Germany became the largest and most powerful country in Europe and Britain’s strongest adversary. There was near hysteria in British Indian circles that Sanskrit studies had brought about German unification as the mighty ‘Aryan Nation’. Sir Henry Maine, a member of the Viceroy’s Council went so far as so claim “A nation has been born out of Sanskrit!”
The implication was clear, what happened in Germany could happen also in India, leading to a repeat of 1857 but with possibly a different result. All this was hysteria of the moment, but Max Müller the Aryan Sage, and outspoken German nationalist faced a more immediate problem: How to save his position at Oxford? He had to shed his political baggage associated with the Aryan race and the Aryan nation to escape any unfriendly scrutiny by his British patrons.
He could of course have gone along quietly but Max Müller being Max Müller, he had to strike a dramatic pose and display his new avatar as a staunch opponent of Aryan theories. In any event he was too much of a celebrity to escape unnoticed, any more than Michael Witzel or Romila Thapar could in our own time. So, within months of the proclamation of the German Empire (18 January 1871) Friedrich Max Müller marched into a university in Strasburg in German occupied France (Alsace) and dramatically denounced what he claimed were distortions of his old theories. He insisted that they were about languages and race had nothing to do with them.
He may have rejected his errors, but his followers, including many quacks and crackpots kept invoking his name in support of their own ideas. The climate in Oxford turned unfriendly and many former friends began to view him with suspicion. In fact, the situation became so bad that in 1875, he seriously contemplated resigning his position at Oxford and returning to Germany. Though there have been claims that this was because he was upset over the award of an honorary degree to his rival Monier-Williams, the more probable explanation is the discomfort resulting from his German nationalist past in the context of the changed situation following German unification.
The specter of Max Müller looms large over the colonial period of Indology though he is unknown in Germany today and all but forgotten in England. In fact his father Wilhem Müller, a very minor German poet is better known: a few of his poems were set to music by the great composer Franz Schubert. In his own time, Germans despised him for having turned his back on the ‘Aryan race’ to please his British masters. Indians though still revere him though no one today takes his theories seriously. One can get and idea of how he was seen by his contemporaries and immediate successors from the entry in the eleventh edition (1911) of the Encyclopaedia Britannicai.
Though undoubtedly a great scholar, Max Müller did not so much represent scholarship pure and simple as her hybrid types— the scholar-author and the scholar-courtier. In the former capacity, though manifesting little of the originality of genius, he rendered vast service by popularising high truths among high minds (and among the highly placed). …There were drawbacks in both respects: the author was too prone to build on insecure foundations, and the man of the world incurred censure for failings which may perhaps be best indicated by the remark that he seemed too much of a diplomatist.
His contemporaries were less charitable. They charged that Max Müller had an eye “only for crowned heads.” His acquaintances included a large number of princes and potentates—with little claim to scholarship—with a maharaja or two thrown in. He was fortunate that the British monarchy was of German origin (Hanoverian) and Queen Victoria’s husband a German prince (Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha). It was these more than fellow scholars that he cultivated. It proved valuable for his career, if not scholarship, for he had little difficulty in getting sponsors for his ambitious projects. He lived and died a rich man, drawing from his rival William Dwight Whitney the following envious if tasteless remark.
He has had his reward. No man was before ever so lavishly paid, in money and in fame, even for the most unexceptional performance of such a task. For personal gratitude in addition, there is not the slightest call. If Müller had never put his hand to the Veda, his fellow-students would have had the material they needed perhaps ten years earlier, and Vedic studies would be at the present moment proportionately advanced. …The original honorarium, of about £500 a volume, is well-nigh or quite unprecedented in the history of purely scholarly enterprises; and the grounds on which the final additional gift of £2000 was bestowed have never been made public.
(To be continued)