Max Mueller on Vedic etc. Religion

thompson at thompson at
Wed May 21 20:00:47 UTC 1997

Greg Downing raises an interesting question which deserves more time and
thought than I can give to it right now [already over-booked].  But I
thought it might be worth saying this:

For Vedicists MM's work specifically on Vedic has been out of date for more
than 100 yrs. [cf. for example, Bergaigne, vol 1, 187,8 or Oldenberg,
"Ancient India" publ. in Eng. in 1896, Germ. orig. in 1886 - full citations
on request].

MM's nature mythology, discussed in the article cited by Jonathan Silk, is
based, of course, on his extensive readings of Vedic. But MM labored under
the typical 19th cent. misconception that he was dealing with the "dawn of
civilization" or something like that, re the Rgveda.  We now know better.
The process of divinization of natural phenomena that he sees in the RV is
the result of an over-literal interpretation of the hymns, as if Vedic
poets were *incapable* of metaphor. It is also the result of an abuse of
etymology [Dyaus = Zeus, etc. -- so what? we learn precious little about
either god from this equation]. I think it is fair to say that no Vedicist
in her / his right mind would resort to MM, except for the sake of
historical curiosity.

With that said, I have always thought, nevertheless, that his notion
"disease of language" and his etymologizing deserved some kind of
re-evaluation. Though the Vedic RSis were not, by a long shot, the naive
nature worshippers that he assumed they were, they *were* preoccupied in
significant ways with language.  And even MM in the early days of Vedic
studies could tell that something was going on in the language of these

Sorry, this is hasty and over-general.  But maybe it will trigger some more
careful observations from others.  I hope to be able to follow up later.

Best wishes,

George Thompson

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