Max Mueller on Vedic etc. Religion

Gregory {Greg} Downing downingg at
Mon May 19 21:09:59 UTC 1997

I signed up a couple weeks back for the Indology list and have since been
lurking, trying to get a sense of what the expertise level is so I don't
sound too silly in posting as a non-expert. (I'm a literature, linguistics,
and cultural-history specialist at New York University.)

In writing a series of articles about James Joyce's background in later 19C
ideas about language, I've looked into the work of Friedrich Max Mueller. I
know from reading what's available about him that he is basically written
about these days *in India*, and as a pioneer of scholarly Indology outside
India. My interest is not mainly his work on India though I am fairly
familiar with it at this point, despite its bulk. My concern is with his
writings on language, and on culture and myth/religion as encapsulated and
conveyed by language -- see for example his _Lectures on the Science of
Lang._ (first ed. 1863).

What I think some on the Indology list might have comments on is MM's
particular way of interpreting the early religion of India. Of course it is
long outdated. Given the rather sweeping breadth of his theorizing and also
given the controveries in which he was involved in his lifetime (plus what
has been written about him -- mainly in India -- in the 20C), one has the
impression that he was rather a Joseph Campbell figure in some ways:
generalizing about world-scale religious and cultural patterns and
tendencies in ways that go beyond the solid evidence in pursuit of a kind of
speculative synthesis. What I'd like to know is how inaccurate (somewhat
wildly inaccurate? ridiculously inaccurate?) his ideas look in the context
of "the state of knowledge" about Vedic etc. religion today.

MM sees myth/religion as the result of the way in which ancient people used
language. They talked about things like dawn and day and sun and brightness,
and because those phenomena were seen as so imporant in their effects on the
world and on people, they were personified into agents and thus became
divinities, especially as language changed and words that formerly were
common nouns came to have different meanings, leaving older forms of common
nouns to be seen as proper names only (names of divinities). I could cite
hundreds of examples from dozens of books and book-chapters in MM's vast
corpus, but so as not to tax the list's patience let me focus on part of one
line of argument.

Lectures IX - XII in Vol. 2 of the 1873 edition of _Lectures on the Sci of
Lang_ are on mythology. At the end of Lecture IX, MM argues that the great
thing about the Rigveda (of which he was the first to do a printed edition
of course), from the perspective of "comparative mythology," is that many of
the names of divinities are clearly still common nouns, thus Agni/fire
(Latin ignis), Marut/storm, Saranyu/dawn, etc. He argues the the vedic hymns
are a good place to see these common nouns turning into personified and
anthropomorphized divinities (last page of Lecture IX). After discussing
Dyaus/Dyu/Zeus/Jupiter/Tyr as the same basic apotheosis of thunder in
Lecture X, MM focuses in Lecture XI on Dawn/light/brightness as associated
with fertility and prosperity etc.

He equates Sanskrit Sarama with Greek Hermes linguistically (root sar, to
go) and argues against connecting Sarama with storm(s) or dog(s) at least
Sarama's earliest stages of development. He also argues that Sarama = Greek
Helene and interprets stories about Helene on that basis. He quotes from
various loci in the Rigveda and Sayana's commentary on Rigveda a myth about
the stealing and returning of cows involving Sarama. MM argues that the cows
are rays of the sun which are robbed by night and brought back by dawn. He
interprets the siege of Troy over Helen(e) as the same story, the west
besieging the light of the sun. Etc....

I could certainly cite in more detail, but the process MM argues for is
clear enough I sauppose (??). MM sees ancient language as a process whereby
common nouns metaphorically become divinities, and the most important
divinities as far as MM are concerned are solar (dawn, sun, light, etc.,
with cattle as one aspect of this -- the rays of the sun as its
cattle/herd). It seems pretty reductive and convenient -- but I am only
speaking as a nonexpert from the angle of you sophisticated practitioners of
late-20C Indology. What I'm looking for is what (if anything) **stands up**
of these kinds of MM theories. I can give more detail on these theories if
that would help, or I can give other examples. Believe me, there is a
***LOT*** of this kind of material in MM's work.

It's relevant to my work on Joyce (see the top of this post) because Chap 14
of Ulysses involves a transformation of the Cattle of the Sun story from
Homer's Odyssey into the story of a birth at a maternity hospital. That's
where MM and his analyses of language and culture and myth and solar
religion and fertility/prosperity might come in. I'm certainly not arguing
for MM's ideas as scientific. I am soliciting input as to how problematic
the idea of Vedic religion as solar (and bovine) in MM's mode might look as
of 1997 -- or any other comments or queries about anything I've mentioned above.

Looking forward to any input or references, onlist or offist as people wish.

Greg Downing/NYU
greg.downing at
downingg at

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