Studying the Sanskrit Language


Friedrich Max Müller:

This Thursday (28th October) marked the anniversary of the death of the philologist and Orientalist, Friedrich Max Müller (6th December 1823-28th October 1900).


Friedrich Max Müller by Alexander Bassano 1883, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Born in the town of Dessau in Germany, Müller moved to England in 1846 and was appointed deputy Taylorian Professor of Modern European Languages at Oxford University in 1850. Prior to commencing his academic career at Oxford, Müller developed an interest in the Sanskrit language and started work on translating the Upanishads for the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling whilst continuing to research Sanskrit under Franz Bopp, a pioneer in the systematic study of the Indo-European language family.

Links to religion

Müller would dedicate his life towards studying Sanskrit and believed that the development of the language could help explain cultural development and in particular, religion. With the Vedic culture of India viewed as the ancestor of European classical cultures, Müller felt that the earliest documents relating to this should be studied in more depth. This inspired him to study the most ancient of Vedic scriptures, the Rigveda, translating it from Sanskrit to English.

Work as a translator

Müller was instrumental in editing and translating into English some of the most ancient and revered religious and philosophical texts of Asia. Alongside the Rigveda, he edited the 50-volume set of English translations of Asian religious texts ‘The Sacred Books of the East’. Therefore, it’s perhaps not a surprise that Müller took an active interest in the Society’s Oriental Translation Fund which was established in 1828 to translate and publish ‘interesting and valuable works on Eastern History, Science, and Belles-Lettres’ and to make them accessible to wider audiences.

The fund was temporally suspended in 1861 due to a shortage of funds. However, it was Müller who took an active interest in re-establishing the fund with a letter from the Society’s archives showing that he offered to help resuscitate it in 1861. Whilst it is unclear why the Oriental Fund Committee did not take him up on his offer, it illustrates Müller’s dedication towards making Oriental texts more accessible to wider audiences.

RAS OTF/2/4: Handwritten letter by Müller offering to help resuscitate the fund (March 1861).

The Bodleian Library holds Müller’s personal papers, but the Society’s Library also has several publications relating to his work. This includes books written by Müller on ancient Sanskrit literature and a souvenir catalogue of his works published to mark his seventieth birthday.

Müller’s Legacy:

Scholarship around the philosophy of religion has moved on since Müller’s time, but he was influential in introducing the Sanskrit language to western audiences and helping promote research into the languages, literature and religions of ancient India.

Dionisius Agius Book Launch:

This Thursday (27th October), the Society welcomed Dionisius Agius for the launch of his book ‘The Life of the Red Sea Dhow: A Cultural History of Seaborne Exploration in the Islamic World’.

Dionisius Agius with the Society’s Director, Dr. Alison Ohta

The event was well attended with Dionisius discussing the cultural history of the dhow whilst drawing on the fieldwork that he had undertaken on the African and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea. For those who are interested in purchasing this book, members can get 35% off when ordering through Bloomsbury. At checkout, the following discount code needs to be applied: TLR GW8UK.

Attendees at the event whilst others attended virtually.

Barwis Holliday Award Submission Deadline:  

Scholars are reminded that the deadline for submissions for the New Barwis Holliday Award is on the 31st December 2021.

Submissions should be new unpublished research on any of the following subjects: anthropology, art, history, literature or religion of any part of East Asia. East Asia is defined as being Japan, China, Korea and the eastern-most regions of the former Soviet Union. The winning article will be published in the Journal, as will all short-listed entries. The author of the winning entry will also receive a £250 cash prize.

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