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Physical Religion 1888–1892

Friedrich Max Müller

Lecture 3.
The Veda as Studied by European Scholars.
Thread of our Argument.
IN a course of lectures we must try never to lose our way.
Where are we?
We are studying Physical Religion—the roads that led from Nature to Nature's gods—to Nature's God. I stated that this phase of religious growth can best be studied in the Veda. And the next question was, What is the Veda—and, How did we come to know it?
Now, if you had asked the most learned Professor, not more than a hundred years ago. What is the Veda?—he would most likely have had to say, what no Professor likes to say, I don't know. Not quite so years ago, when Professor Wilson offered a translation of the Veda to one of our greatest publishers, he was met by the question, ‘And pray, Sir, what is the Veda?’
I therefore feel in duty bound to explain, first of all, how the world came to know the Veda, and who are the first people outside of India that bear witness to its existence.
The Greeks did not mention the Veda, though no doubt it existed long before Alexander, nor the Persians, nor the Jews. The first people outside India who knew the Veda were the Chinese. Then followed Al-Birûnî, at the court of Mahmud of Ghazna (about 1000 A.D.), and lastly the Emperor Akbar and his literary friends, in the second half of the sixteenth century. All these bear witness to the existence of the Veda. But they are witnesses who lived in the East. We have now to see how the Veda became known in the West, how a knowledge of that ancient literature reached the scholars of Europe.
European Missionaries in India.
At the court of Akbar, and again at the court of Aurungzebe (1658–1707), there were several European missionaries who took part in the religious and philosophical discussions of the time, and who ought to have been acquainted with the Vedas, if only by name. But it would seem as if the Brâhmans, though anxious to have their literature known and appreciated by their conquerors, were more anxious still to keep their sacred literature, the Vedas, out of sight of any strangers. Their law-books are full of threatenings against any one who should divulge the Veda, and it seems certainly a fact that the Emperor Akbar, omnipotent as he was, not succeed in persuading any Brâhman to translate the real Veda for him1.
It was only when Christian missionaries began themselves to learn the classical language of the Brâhmans, the so-called Sanskrit, that they became aware of the existence of the old sacred books, called the Veda.
Francis Xavier, who went as a missionary to India in the first half of the sixteenth century, was honest enough to confess that he could not learn the language. ‘I do not understand that people,’ he writes, ‘nor do they understand me.’ Yet this is the same Xavier who is always mentioned as one of the first successful missionaries in India, nay to whom, under the name of St. Francis Xavier, his admirers ascribed the gift of tongues.
In the second half of that century, however, a successful attempt was made by some Roman Catholic missionaries at Goa to learn Sanskrit with the help of a converted Brâhman, and early in the seventeenth century the famous missionary, Roberto de' Nobili, had made himself thoroughly acquainted, not only with the Sanskrit language, but with Sanskrit literature also. That he knew the Veda, and that he had learnt to appreciate its enormous authority among the higher classes in India, is best shown by the fact that he announced himself as come to preach a new Veda. Whether he actually composed such a work we do not know, but it seems quite certain that the notorious Ezour-veda was not his work. This Ezour-veda was a poor compilation of Hindu and Christian doctrines mixed up together in the most childish way, and was probably the work of a half-educated native convert at Pondicherry. A French translation of this work was sent to Voltaire, who presented it to the Royal Library at Paris in 1761. It was published by Sainte-Croix in 1778, under the title of L'Ezour Védam, ou ancien commentaire du Védam, contenant l'exposition des opinions religieuses et philosophiques des Indous, traduit du Samscretam par un Brame. How a man of Voltaire's taste could have been taken in by such a work is difficult to understand to any one who takes the trouble to read the two volumes. Yet Voltaire spoke of it as ‘the most precious gift for which the West has ever been indebted to the East,’ and he placed its date four centuries before Alexander. In plain English, the whole book is childish drivel.
To us the book is chiefly interesting as showing when the name of Veda began first to be more generally known among the literary men of Europe. The Roman Catholic missionaries in India had begun to grapple with the real Veda early in the eighteenth century, but their communications in the Lettres édifiantes attracted much less attention than the eulogies of a spurious Veda, trumpeted forth by so powerful a trumpeter as Voltaire. Father Calmette, for instance, in a letter from Carnata in the south of India, dated January, 1733, assures us that his friends were not only well grounded in Sanskrit, but were able to read the Veda. This shows decided progress, and a recognition of the fact of which Sanskrit students are painfully aware, that a man may be well grounded in Sanskrit, and yet unable to read the Veda. He also knows that there are four Vedas which, as he states, ‘contain the law of the Brâhmans, and which the Indians from time immemorial regarded as their sacred books, as books of an irrefragable authority and as coming from God Himself.’ Father Calmette was evidently quite aware of the importance of a knowledge of the Vedas for missionary purposes, and of the immense influence which the Vedas continued to exercise on the religious convictions of the people. ‘From the time,’ he writes, ‘that missionaries first went to India, it has always been thought to be impossible to find this book which is so much respected by the Indians. And, indeed, we should never have succeeded, if we had not had Brâhmans, who are Christians, hidden among them. For how would they have communicated this book to Europeans, and particularly to the enemies of their religion, as they do not communicate it even to the Indians, except to those of their own caste.’ He then adds what shows that his informants had been bona fide students of the Veda. ‘The most extraordinary part is that those who are the depositaries of the Veda do not understand its meaning; for the Veda is written in a very ancient language, and the Samouscroutam (that is, the Sanskrit), which is as familiar to their learned men as Latin is to us, is not sufficient, without the help of a commentary, to explain the thoughts as well as the words of the Veda.’
This statement is important in several respects. You will have remarked the expression, ‘those who are the depositaries of the Veda.’ He does not say that he has as yet seen or handled the books containing the text of the Veda; he speaks only of depositaries of the Veda. This shows, what we now know to have been the case always, that the Brâhmans at his time, and in the south of India, did not depend on books or manuscripts for the preservation of the Veda, but that they knew it by heart, and learnt it by heart from the mouth of a teacher. It does not follow that they did not possess manuscripts also of the Veda. It is true that in their law-books the copying of the Veda and the selling of manuscripts is strictly forbidden, but the fact that it was necessary to forbid this shows, of course, that the law was broken. Manuscripts of the Veda did exist in the last century, for we possess them, and Father Calmette also succeeded after a time in procuring some of them. They may have existed as soon as the art of writing for literary purposes began to be practised in India, say a century or two before the beginning of the Christian era. But they never assumed the authority which the litera scripta assumed in Europe. The Brâhmans themselves were the true depositaries of the Veda; they were the books, and more than the books, inasmuch as an unbroken oral tradition was supposed to connect each successive generation with the original composers, or, speaking more accurately, with the original recipients of these sacred hymns.
Another remark too of Father Calmette is very significant. He says, ‘They who are the depositaries of the Veda, do not understand its meaning.’ Now this is again perfectly true. The Veda is learnt by heart at first, without any attempt at understanding it. It is only after the test has thus been mechanically engraved on the tablets of the memory, that the more learned among the Brâhmans endeavour to understand it under the guidance of their teachers and with the help of ancient commentaries. All this is in accordance with their ancient law-books, and exists still as the recognised system of education in several parts of India, particularly in the south. Some schools go even so far as to maintain that a text of the Veda, if not understood, is more efficient at a sacrifice than if it is understood by the person who recites it. I doubt whether any other priesthood has gone so far in their admiration of ignorance.
However, it is quite clear that Father Calmette was one of the first who succeeded in getting hold of actual manuscripts of the Veda.
Father Calmette tells us that for a long time he thought that the Vedas could not be found in manuscript. Other missionaries also tell the same story. Marco della Tomba, for instance, who was in India between 1757 and 1774, and who declares that he knew Sanskrit well enough to carry on disputations in it with the Brâhmans, confesses that he was never allowed to see a manuscript of the Vedas. He doubts the very existence of the Vedas, but he speaks with the greatest admiration of the Brâhmans who knew whole books by heart. At last, however, Father Calmette was successful. ‘It is only five or six years ago,’ he writes, ‘that I was allowed to form an Oriental library for the King, and charged to seek for Indian books for that purpose. I then made discoveries of great importance for religion, among which I count that of the four Vedas or sacred books.’
And here, after Father Calmette had got actual possession of the Veda, and had succeeded with the help of some Brâhmans to decipher some of its chapters, it is most instructive to watch the bent of his thoughts, and of the thoughts of many of the early missionaries in India. He is not bent on extracting from the Veda passages showing the depravity and absurdity of the ancient Indian religion, an occupation which some of our present missionaries seem to consider their principal duty. No, the very contrary. ‘Since the Veda is in our hands,’ he writes, ‘we have extracted from it texts which serve to convince them of those fundamental truths that must destroy idolatry; for the unity of God, the qualities of the true God, and a state of blessedness and condemnation, are all in the Veda. But the truths which are to be found in this book are only scattered there like grains of gold in a heap of sand.’
What would some of the present Bishops in India say to this truly Pauline sentiment, to this attempt to discover in the sacred books of other nations some grains of gold, some common ground, on which a mutual understanding and a real brotherhood might be established between Christians and non-Christians? The Brâhmans themselves are quite aware of the existence of these grains of gold, and when accused of polytheism and idolatry, they themselves quote certain verses from the Veda to show that even in ancient times their prophets knew perfectly well that the different gods invoked for different blessings were only different names of the one Supreme Being. Thus they quote from Rig-veda I. 164, 46:
Índram Mitrám Várunam Agním âhuh,
Átho divyáhh suparnáh Garútmân.
Ékam sát víprâh bahudhấ vadanti,
Agním, Yamám, Mâtarísvânam âhuh.
‘They call Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, then there is that heavenly Garutmat with beautiful wings: the One that is they speak of in different ways, they call it Agni, Yama, Mâtarisvan.’
This is a clear confession, if not of Monotheism, at least of Monism, for it should be remarked that the Vedic poet, when he speaks of the one that truly exists, the bearer of many divine names, does not even venture to put it in the masculine gender, but calls it the Ekam Sat, the only Being that exists.
Another well-known verse of a similar character, in which, however, the masculine gender and a certain amount of human metaphor are still preserved, occurs in Rig-veda X. 82, 3:
h nah pitấ ganitấ yáh vidhâtấ,
dhấmâni véda, bhúvanâni vísvâ,
h devấnâm nâmadhấh ékah evá,
tám samprasnám bhúvanâ yanti anyấ.
‘He who is our father that begot us, he who is the creator,
He who knows all places and all creatures,
He who gave names to the gods, being one only,
To him all other creatures go, to ask him.’
I could add other passages, particularly from the Brâhmanas and Upanishads, all confirming Father Calmette's idea that the Veda is the best key to the religion of India, and that a thorough knowledge of it, of its strong as well as of its weak points, is indispensable to the student of religion, and more particularly to the missionary who is anxious to make sincere converts. What is extraordinary is that the announcement of Father Calmette's discovery of the Veda passed off almost unheeded in Europe.
Another French missionary, Father Pons, in 1740, sent a still more complete account of the literary treasures discovered in India. In it he describes the four Vedas, the grammatical treatises, the six systems of philosophy, and the astronomy of the Hindus. But his communications also excited no curiosity except among a few members of the French Institute. The world at large, which would have greeted the discovery of a single ancient Greek statue with shouts of applause, had nothing to say to the unearthing of a whole literature, of a whole world of ancient thought.
European Scholars acquainted with the Vedas.
The Abbé Barthélemy was one of the few European scholars who perceived the true import of the communications sent home from India by French missionaries, and he asked Father Cœurdoux in 1763 to send home a Sanskrit grammar. This shows that he was in real earnest, and felt impressed with the duty which these extraordinary Indian discoveries imposed on the learned men of Europe. After a time, grammars of the Sanskrit language reached Europe, and it will always remain an honour to Rome that the first grammar of the Sanskrit language was published at Rome in 1790, by a Carmelite friar, Paolino da S. Bartolomeo. He was a German, by name of Johann Philip Werdin, not Wesdin, as he is often called, and had been actively employed as a missionary in the south of India from 1776 to 1789.
But after giving full credit to the labours of Paolino da S. Bartolomeo and other Roman missionaries, the fact remains that there was as yet a smouldering curiosity only for all that concerned India. The flames of a true scientific enthusiasm for the ancient literature of that country did not burst forth till they were lighted by a spark of genius. That spark came from Sir William Jones. Sir William Jones was a man of classical culture and of wide interests. He was at home in the best literary society of the age. He could speak with authority, as a scholar to scholars, as a philosopher to philosophers, and as a man of the world to men of the world. When in 17892 he published his translation of Sakuntalâ, he forced the attention of the world, not only by the unexpected character of his discovery of a perfect dramatic work composed by a dark-skinned poet, but by the pure and classical style of his translation. His subsequent translation of the Laws of Manu did infinite credit to his patience and his ingenuity, and coming from the hand of a professed lawyer and a judge, it could not but attract the serious attention of all who were interested in ancient history, and more particularly, in ancient law. Of course, Sanskrit scholarship has made progress since the days of Sir William Jones, and it is easy now to point out a few mistakes in his renderings. But true scholars who, like Professor Bühler, have given us better translations of Manu, have been the first to acknowledge Sir William Jones' great merits: whereas others who have never done a stitch of independent work, have dared to call his translations ‘meretricious.’
Asiatic Society of Bengal.
With the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, the history of Sanskrit philology begins, and after a hundred years that society still holds the foremost place as the Royal Exchange between Asia and Europe. I cannot here attempt to give an account of all the brilliant work done by Sanskrit scholars during the first century of Indo-European scholarship. We are concerned with the Vedas only. And here it is certainly surprising that the Vedas, the supreme importance of which was so clearly perceived by men like Father Calmette, Pons, Paolino da S. Bartolomeo, and others, should have remained so long neglected. Sir W. Jones was fully impressed with their importance. He knew that the Laws of Manu, to which he assigned the extravagant antiquity of 1500 B.C. (they are now referred to about 400 A. D.), were modern in comparison with the Vedas, and derived their chief authority from them.
A much greater scholar than even Sir William Jones, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who with indefatigable industry had worked his way through the text and the enormous commentaries of the Veda, and whose essay on the Vedas, published in 1805, is still a work of the highest authority, so far from exciting an active interest in these works, rather damped the enthusiasm of scholars who might have wished to devote themselves to Vedic studies, by saying, as he does at the end of his essay: ‘The Vedas are too voluminous for a complete translation of the whole, and what they contain would hardly reward the labour of the reader, much less that of the translator.’
Interest aroused in Germany.
Still the curiosity of the learned world had been roused, not only in England, but in Germany also. While Goethe admired the graceful simplicity of Sakuntalâ, his friend Herder, with the true instinct of the historian, was thirsting for the Veda. While others ascribed an extreme antiquity to the Laws of Manu and even to plays like Sakuntalâ, he saw clearly that whatever had been hitherto published of Sanskrit literature, was comparatively modern and secondary in its character. ‘For the real Veda of the Indians,’ he sighed, ‘as well as for the real Sanskrit language, we shall probably have to wait a long time.’
Bunsen's projected Journey to India.
How strong a desire had been awakened in Germany at that time for a real and authentic knowledge of the Veda, I learnt from my dear old friend Bunsen, when I first made his acquaintance in London in 1846. He was then Prussian Minister in London. He told me that when he was quite a young man, he had made up his mind to go himself to India, to see whether there really was such a book as the Veda, and what it was like. But Bunsen was then a poor student at Göttingen, poorer even, I believe, than the poorest student in England or Scotland. What did he do to realize his dream? He became tutor to a young and very rich American gentleman, well known in later life as one of the American millionaires, Mr. Astor. Instead of accepting payment for his lessons, he stipulated with the young American, who had to return to the United States, that they should meet in Italy, and from thence proceed together to India on a voyage of literary discovery. Bunsen went to Italy, and waited and waited for his friend, but in vain. Mr. Astor was detained at home, and Bunsen, in despair, had to become private secretary to Niebuhr, who was then Prussian Minister at Rome. Brilliant as Bunsen's career became afterwards, he always regretted the failure of his youthful scheme. ‘I have been stranded,’ he used to say, ‘on the sands of diplomacy; I should have been happier had I remained a scholar.’ This was the origin of my own friendship with Bunsen.
When I called on him as Prussian Minister to have my passport visé in order to return to Germany, and when I explained to him how I had worked to bring out an edition of the text and commentary of the Rig-veda from MSS. scattered about in different libraries in Europe, and was now obliged to return to Germany, unable to complete my copies and collations of manuscripts, he took my hand, and said, ‘I look upon you as myself, young again. Stay in London, and as to ways and means, let me see to that.’ Mind, I was then a young, unknown man. Bunsen had never seen me before. Let that be a lesson to young men, never to despair. If you have found a work to which you are ready to sacrifice the whole of your life, and if you have faith in yourselves, others will have faith in you, and, sooner or later, a work that must be done will be done.
MSS. of the Veda brought to Europe.
But I have not yet finished the account of the final discovery of the Veda.
After Colebrooke's return from India, manuscripts of the Veda and its commentaries had become accessible in London. The first who made an attempt to study these manuscripts, to copy and collate them, and prepare them for publication, was Rosen. As the result of his labours he published in 1830 his Rigvedae Specimen. It contained a few hymns only, but it produced a great impression, because, after all, it was the first authentic specimen of the ancient Vedic language submitted to the scholars of Europe. Rosen undertook to bring out the whole of the Rig-veda, but he found the preliminary work, the study of Sâyana's commentary and of all the literature pertaining to it, far more difficult than he expected. When after seven years of hard and patient labour Rosen died in 1837, all that there was to be published after his death in 1838, was the first book of the Rig-veda in Sanskrit, with a Latin translation and notes.
With Rosen's death the thread of the history of Vedic scholarship seems broken again. Many learned papers were written on the Veda, all based on Rosen's posthumous volume. Bopp constantly availed himself of the Veda for his Comparative Grammar. Lassen, Benfey, Kuhn, and others, all drew as much information as possible out of the 121 hymns which Rosen had placed within their reach. But the only scholar in Europe who went beyond Rosen, and who really forms the connecting link between the first and the second periods of Vedic scholarship, was Eugène Burnouf at Paris.
Eugène Burnouf in France.
Historical justice requires that Burnouf's merits should be fully recognised, because, owing to his being called away to Buddhistic studies, and owing to his early death, very little of his work on the Veda has come to the knowledge of the world, except through his disciples. First of all, Burnouf worked hard in collecting MSS. of the principal Vedas, of their commentaries, and of other works necessary for their elucidation. He had persuaded Guizot3, who was then Prime Minister in France, to provide the funds necessary for the acquisition of these MSS.; others he had acquired at his own expense. With the help of these MSS. he gained a wider acquaintance with Vedic literature than was possessed at that time by any other scholar. Scholars came from all parts of Europe to attend his lectures. These lectures were given at the Collège de France. They were attended by Nève, Gorresio, Roth, Goldstücker, Barthélemy St. Hilaire, Bardelli, and others, who have all done good work, though some of them have gone to rest from their labours. In these lectures Burnouf laid before us in the most generous spirit his own views on the interpretation of the Veda, his own results, and his own plans for the future. The true principles of the interpretation of the Veda, the necessity of beginning with the native commentaries, and the equal necessity of going beyond them and discovering the true meaning of the Vedic language by the same method of decipherment which Burnouf himself had so triumphantly applied to the Avesta and to the cuneiform inscriptions, were then for the first time clearly enunciated. And not only was all his knowledge freely communicated to his pupils, but his own MSS. were readily placed at their disposal, if only they would work and help in the advancement of Vedic scholarship.
We were allowed to handle for the first time, not only the texts of the Vedas and their commentaries, but such books as the Nirukta, the Prâtisâkhyas, the Kalpa-sûtras were freely placed at our disposal. There can be no question whatever that the founder of the critical school of Vedic scholarship was Burnouf, though he himself was the very last man to claim any credit for what he had done. The seed which he had sown bore ample fruit, and that was all he cared for. In Roth's Essays on the Veda (1846) we see the first results of Burnouf's teaching, and in his later works, his edition of the Nirukta (1852) and his valuable contributions to the Petersburg Dictionary, the same scholar has proved himself a worthy disciple of that great French savant.
My edition of the Rig-veda.
I had come to Paris to attend Burnouf's lectures, and with very vague notions as to an edition of the text and the commentary of the Rig-veda. You must remember that the Vedas had never been published in India, though for more than three thousand years they had held there the same place which the Bible holds with us. They existed both in oral tradition, as they still exist, and in MSS., more or less perfect, more or less correct. These MSS. therefore had to be copied, and then to be collated. This was comparatively an easy task. The real difficulty began with the commentary. First of all, that commentary was enormous, and filled about four volumes quarto of a thousand pages each. While the MSS. of the text were generally correct, those of the commentary were mostly very carelessly written, full of omissions, and often perfectly unintelligible. But the greatest difficulty of all was that Sâyana, the compiler of the great commentary, who lived in the fourteenth century A.D.4, quoted largely from a literature which was at that time entirely unknown to us, which existed in MSS. only, and often not even in MSS. accessible in Europe. My idea was to give extracts only from this commentary, but on this point Burnouf resisted with all his might. We must have the whole or nothing, he used to say, and often when I despaired of my task, he encouraged and helped me with his advice. Before I could begin the first volume of my edition of Sayâna's commentary, I had to read, to copy, and to index the principal works which were constantly referred to by Sâyana—a little library by itself. However, in 1849 the first volume appeared, and twenty-five years later, in 1875, the whole work was finished.
I have thus tried to give you a short sketch of the discovery of the Veda. My own task was not that of a discoverer, but that of a patient excavator only. With every new platform that was laid bare, with every new volume that was published, scholars rushed in to examine what had been found, to sift the ashes, to clear the genuine antiquities from the rubbish. Critical scholarship did not wait till the whole of Sâyana's commentary was finished. A number of excellent young scholars have been at work on the Veda in every country of Europe. In India also a new interest has sprung up in Vedic literature, and with every year new light is thrown on the enigmatic utterances of the Vedic Rishis. What these utterances are, what the Rig-veda really is, what the whole of Vedic literature contains, I shall have to explain to you in my next lecture.
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