overemphasis on magic (was: Re: etymology in the Sanskrit tr.)

JHOUBEN at rullet.LeidenUniv.nl JHOUBEN at rullet.LeidenUniv.nl
Fri May 24 15:45:38 UTC 1996

George Thompson wrote: 

>Jan Houben wrote:

>>"On etymologies in India see recently: Max Deeg, Die altindische Etymologie
>>nach dem Verstaendnis Yaaska's und seiner Vorgaenger, Verlag J.H. Roell,
>>1995, who overemphasizes in my view <<magical>> aspects of the

> . . .  I am curious to know what this "over-emphasis" consists of.

The author of Die altindische Etymologie rightly emphasizes that the ancient 
Indian disciplin of Nirukta is to be understood in its own traditional context 
("Dies zeigt noch einmal umso deutlicher, dass die Disziplin der nairukta der 
aelteren Tradition verpflichtet ist, p. 419), and not to be measured according 
to the standards of modern etymology. The main concept which the author 
introduces to distinguish ancient Indian from modern etymology is <<Magie>>, 
but the author makes no attempt to go below the surface of this extremely 
problematic concept. He merely refers to L. Petzoldt's Magie und Religion 
(published 1978, consisting of articles of various authors mainly written 
between 1910 and 1968 and one in 1978), and to a definition of Hutton Webster  
(1973, an earlier edition appeared in ca. 1948).  Also more generally, no 
secondary literature after ca. 1980 is mentioned in this book which appeared in 
1995! While it had already become clear to L. Petzoldt that the 19th century 
ideas on an evolution from magic pre-animism through animism to theistic 
religion (cf. Frazer's Golden Bough) are untenable (Petzoldt p. X), M. Deeg's 
presentation of facts seems not to go beyond such an outdated evolutionary 
scheme (at least I do not see any explicit reflection on the problems 
  Why is no reference made to more recent material such as Stanley J. Tambiah's 
Magic, Science and the scope of Rationality (Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures, 
Cambridge University Press 1990) who points out (p. 2) that "we have to 
confront today the question whether or not the categories of magic, science and 
religion may be "tendentious" and their analytical value rendered suspect by 
their historical "embeddedness". Why is so much energy invested in studying the 
data and hardly any in a critical reflection? Why not participate in modern 
academic discussions on this subject? This is, very briefly, my criticism 
concerning the uncritical use of the term Magie in Max Deeg's work which, in 
spite of the mentioned shortcoming, will certainly remain valuable for 
Indological specialists. But with such an Ivory-tower attitude Indologists 
should not be surprised to see that chairs for Indology are not renewed and 
that funding for their discipline quickly disappears. 
  Indology, which used to be a fountainhead of creative ideas for the 
linguistic and at that period newly emerging social sciences in the 19th 
century has now become an area of muddy backwaters of outdated ideas and 
concepts in the religious and human sciences. 

Jan E.M. Houben
Research Fellow International Institute for Asian Studies
P.O. Box 9515
2300 RA Leiden
jhouben at RULLET.LeidenUniv.NL

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