Clearing the mist around Max Muller

A few weeks ago, one of the commentators on this blog had very unpleasant things to say about Max Muller –  basically alleging that Max Muller had deliberately mistranslated the Vedas (and that Macaulay had set him up to this!).

I'm not an expert on such matters but even a casual look at the literature quickly allows us to reject such claims. Let's check a few texts:

FACT 1: HINDUS DID NOT WANT TO TEACH SANSKRIT TO FOREIGNERS

First, the Hindu priests generally did not either want to teach Sanskrit to others nor translate ancient texts into other languages. When even Hindus themselves were not all allowed to read these texts, how would others be so permitted? This is evident from the following statement from Nehru's Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981, paperback, p. 317) 

"If the British Government in India was reluctant to teach English to Indians, Brahmin scholars objected even more, but for different reasons, to teach Sanskrit to Englishmen. When Sir William Jones, already a linguist and a scholar, came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court, he expressed his desire to learn Sanskrit. But no Brahmin would agree to teach the sacred language to a foreigner and an intruder, even though handsome rewards were offered. Jones ultimately, with considerable difficulty, got hold of a non-Brahmin Vaidya or medical practitioner who agreed to teach, but on his own peculiar and stringent conditions. Jones agreed to every stipulation, so great was his eagerness to learn the ancient language of India. Sanskrit fascinated him and especially the discovery of the old Indian drama. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasurers of Sanskrit literature. In 1784 Sir William Jones established the Bengal Asiatic Society which later became the Royal Asiatic Society."

FACT 2: RAJA RAMMOHUN ROY MADE SOME OF THE EARLY TRANSLATIONS

Later, in 1835, RRR, a Brahmin, translated many of the Upanishads into English. These included:

  • Translation of an Abridgment of the Vedant, or Resolution of all the Veds
  • Translation of the Moonduk Oopunishad of the Uthurvu-Ved
  • Translation of the Cena Oopanishad, one of the Chapters of the Sam Ved
  • Translation of the Kut h-Oopunishad of the Yajoor-Ved
  • Translation of the Ishopunishad, one of the Chapters of the Yajoor-Ved
  • Translation of a Sunscrit Tract on Different modes of Worship

FACT 3: MAX MULLER's WORK WAS AS GENUINE AS ANY WORK CAN BE

Max Mueller came next in the series (I think!).

Nehru outlines Max Mueller's work in DOI (cited above, p.93):

"Max Muller says: "Schopenhauer was the last man to write at random, or to allow himself to go into ecstasies over so-called mystic and inarticulate thought. And I am neither afraid nor ashamed to say that I share his enthusiasm for the Vendanta, and feel indebted to it for much that has been helpful to me in my passage through life." In another place Max Muller says: "The Upanishads are the … sources of … the Vedanta philosophy, a system in which human speculation seems to me to have reached its very acme." "I spend my happiest hours in reading Vedantic books. They are to me like the light of the morning, like the pure air of the mountains – so simple, so true, if once understood."

Vivekananda considered Max Mueller a true Vedantin
Vivekananda wrote an extensive essay on Max Muller (here).He says:
  • What an extraordinary man is Prof. Max Müller!
  • Max Müller is a Vedantist of Vedantists. He has, indeed, caught the real soul of the melody of the Vedanta, in the midst of all its settings of harmonies and discords — the one light that lightens the sects and creeds of the world, the Vedanta, the one principle of which all religions are only applications.

CONCLUSION

Even if Max Muller made a few errors in his translation from Sanskrit, we must not forget that in his time there were not many Indians who understood both Sanskrit and English/German, to help him out in case of difficulties.
 
But more importantly, if there had been a major mistranslation then Vivekandana would have long picked up on it. But clearly he was happy with it. 
 
I am convinced that painting Macaulay and Max Muller with a black brush is totally unwarranted. Let's look at the facts dispassionately. Indeed, given the huge effort they put in, both Macaulay and Muller were India's great friends. 
 
I am loathe to have their memories blackened by commentators who use the lack of rigour of analysis, typical of internet commentary, to made highly inaccurate and biased claims against them. It is important that we study the outstanding scholars and leaders of the past with due diligence and not rush to conclusions either in favour or against them.