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Friedrich Max Muller's Biography (Books) (Photos)

Friedrich Max Muller
Friedrich Max Muller (December 6, 1823 - October 28, 1900), more regularly known as Max Muller, was a German philologist and Orientalist, one of the founders of the western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of comparative religion. Muller wrote both scholarly and popular works on the subject of Indology, a discipline he introduced to the British reading public, and the Sacred Books of the East, a massive, 50-volume set of English translations prepared under his direction, stands as an enduring monument to Victorian scholarship.

He was born in Dessau, the son of the Romantic poet Wilhelm Muller, whose verse Franz Schubert had set to music in his song-cycles Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise. Max Muller's mother, Adelheide Muller, was the eldest daughter of a chief minister of Anhalt-Dessau. Muller knew Felix Mendelssohn and had Carl Maria von Weber as a godfather.

In 1841 he entered Leipzig University, where he left his early interest in music and poetry in favour of philosophy. Muller received his Ph.D. in 1843 for a dissertation on Spinoza's Ethics. He also displayed an aptitude for languages, learning the Classical languages Greek and Latin, as well as Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. In 1844 Muller went to Berlin to study with Friedrich Schelling. He began to translate the Upanishads for Schelling, and continued to research Sanskrit under Franz Bopp, the first systematic scholar of the Indo-European languages. Schelling led Muller to relate the history of language to the history of religion. At this time, Muller published his first book, a German translation of the Hitopadesa, a collection of Indian fables.

In 1845, Muller moved to Paris to study Sanskrit under Eugene Burnouf. It was Burnouf who encouraged him to publish the complete Rig Veda in Sanskrit, using manuscripts available in England.

Muller moved to England in 1846 in order to study Sanskrit texts in the collection of the East India Company. He supported himself at first with creative writing, his novel German Love being popular in its day. Muller's connections with the East India Company and with Sanskritists based at Oxford University led to a career in Britain, where he eventually became the leading intellectual commentator on the culture of India, which Britain controlled as part of its Empire. This led to complex exchanges between Indian and British intellectual culture, especially through Muller's links with the Brahmo Samaj. He became a member of Christ Church, Oxford in 1851, when he gave his first series of lectures on comparative philology. He gained appointments as Taylorian Professor of Modern European Languages in 1854. Defeated in the 1860 competition for the tenured Chair of Sanskrit, he later became Oxford's first Professor of Comparative Theology (1868 - 1875), at All Souls College.

Muller's comparative religion was criticized as subversive of the Christian faith. According to Monsignor Munro, the Roman Catholic bishop of St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow, his 1888 Gifford Lectures on the "science of religion" represented nothing less than "a crusade against divine revelation, against Jesus Christ and Christianity". Similar accusations had already led to Muller's exclusion from the Boden chair in Sanskrit in favour of the conservative Monier Monier-Williams. By the 1880s Muller was being courted by Charles Godfrey Leland, Helena Blavatsky and other writers who were seeking to assert the merits of "Pagan" religious traditions over Christianity. The designer Mary Fraser Tytler stated that Muller's book Chips from a German Workshop (a collection of his essays) was her "Bible", which helped her to create a multi-cultural sacred imagery.

Muller distanced himself from these developments, and remained within the Lutheran faith in which he had been brought up. He several times expressed the view that a "reformation" within Hinduism needed to occur comparable to the Christian Reformation. In his view, "if there is one thing which a comparative study of religions places in the clearest light, it is the inevitable decay to which every religion is exposed... Whenever we can trace back a religion to its first beginnings, we find it free from many blemishes that affected it in its later states". He used his links with the Brahmo Samaj in order to encourage such a reformation on the lines pioneered by Ram Mohan Roy.

In a letter to his wife, he said:


The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years.

Munro had argued conversely that Muller's theories "uprooted our idea of God, for it repudiated the idea of a personal God." He made "divine revelation simply impossible, because it his theory reduced God to mere nature, and did away with the body and soul as we know them." Muller remained profoundly influenced by the Kantian Transcendentalist model of spirituality, and was opposed to Darwinian ideas of human development, arguing that "language forms an impassable barrier between man and beast."