F. Max Muller

F. Max Muller books and biography


Max Müller

Max Müller as a young man
Max Müller as a young man

Friedrich Max Müller (December 6, 1823 – October 28, 1900), more commonly known as Max Müller, was a German philologist and Orientalist, one of the founders of Indian studies, who virtually created the discipline of comparative religion. Müller wrote both scholarly and popular works on this subject, a discipline he introduced to the British reading public, and the Sacred Books of the East, a massive, 50-volume set of English translations prepared under his direction, stands as an enduring monument to Victorian scholarship.

Life and work

He was born in Dessau, the son of the Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller, whose verse Franz Schubert had set to music in his song-cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Max Müller's mother, Adelheide Müller, was the eldest daughter of a chief minister of Anhalt-Dessau. Müller knew Felix Mendelssohn and had Carl Maria von Weber as a godfather.

In 1841 he entered Leipzig University, where he left his early interest in music and poetry in favour of philosophy. Müller received his Ph.D. in 1843 for a dissertation on Spinoza's Ethics

Müller shared many of the ideas associated with Romanticism, which coloured his account of ancient religions, in particular his emphasis on the formative influence on early religion of emotional communion with natural forces.

Müller's Sanskrit studies came at a time when scholars had started to see language development in relation to cultural development. The recent discovery of the Indo-European (IE) language group had started to lead to much speculation about the relationship between Greco-Roman cultures and those of more ancient peoples. In particular the Vedic culture of India was thought to have been the ancestor of European Classical cultures, and scholars sought to compare the genetically related European and Asian languages in order to reconstruct the earliest form of the root-language. The Vedic language, Sanskrit, was thought to be the oldest of the IE languages. Müller therefore devoted himself to the study of this language, becoming one of the major Sanskrit scholars of his day. Müller believed that the earliest documents of Vedic culture should be studied in order to provide the key to the development of pagan European religions, and of religious belief in general. To this end, Müller sought to understand the most ancient of Vedic scriptures, the Rig-Veda

His wife, Georgina Adelaide (died 1916) had his papers and correspondence carefully bound; they are at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.


The elderly Max Müller
The elderly Max Müller

Some controversy has arisen in certain quarters in modern India over Müller's interpretation of Vedic culture. In recent years he has been accused of using his scholarship to undermine Hinduism and encourage Christian missionary work. Ironically, in his own lifetime, his work produced precisely the opposite controversy, since many Christians considered his teaching of comparative religion as subversive of the Christian faith. According to Monsignor Munro, the Roman Catholic bishop of St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow, his 1888 Gifford Lectures on the "science of religion" represented nothing less than "a crusade against divine revelation, against Jesus Christ and Christianity". Similar accusations had already led to Müller's exclusion from the Boden chair in Sanskrit in favour of the uncontroversial Monier Monier-Williams. By the 1880s Müller was being courted by Charles Godfrey Leland, Helena Blavatsky and other writers who were seeking to assert the merits of either "Pagan" (non-Christian) or Dharmic religious traditions over Christianity. The designer Mary Fraser Tytler stated that Müller's book Chips from a German Workshop (a collection of his essays) was her "Bible", which helped her to create a multi-cultural sacred imagery.

Müller distanced himself from these developments, and remained within the Lutheran faith in which he had been brought up. He several times expressed the view that a "reformation" within Hinduism needed to occur comparable to the Christian Reformation. In his view, "if there is one thing which a comparative study of religions places in the clearest light, it is the inevitable decay to which every religion is exposed.... Whenever we can trace back a religion to its first beginnings, we find it free from many blemishes that affected it in its later states". He used his links with the Brahmo Samaj in order to encourage such a reformation on the lines pioneered by Ram Mohan Roy.

In this context Müller wrote a letter to his wife, in reply to her concerns that he was undermining Christianity:

The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years.


On India, Upanishads and Vedanta:

"If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of the Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human a life...again I should point to India."

On the Vedas:

"Large number of Vedic hymns are childish in the extreme ; tedious, low, commonplace."

"I have declared again and again that if I say Aryans, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair nor skull; I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language… in that sense, and in that sense only, do I say that even the blackest Hindus represent an earlier stage of Aryan speech and thought than the fairest Scandinavians...To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar."

Letter to Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, author of The Oriental Christ: "Tell me some of your chief difficulties that prevent you and your countrymen from openly following Christ, and when I write to you I shall do my best to explain how I and many who agree with me have met them and solved them. I do not hesitate to say that on some of these points we may have to learn more from you than we can teach you, and I say this honestly, and from personal experience. That too will be a lesson difficult to learn for our bishops and missionaries, but in Christian humility they will have to learn it. From my point of view, India, at least the best part of it, is already converted to Christianity. You want no persuasion to become a follower of Christ. Then make up your mind to act for yourselves. Unite your flock, and put up a few folds to hold them together. The bridge has been built by you for those who came before you. Step boldly forward, it will not break under you, and you will find many friends to welcome you on the other shore, and among them none more delighted than your old friend and fellow labourer."(Vol. II., Ch. XXXIV., pages 415-416.)

"On 16th December 1868 A.D. Meuller wrote to Duke of Argyle, the Minister for India: - 'The ancient religion of India is doomed and if Christianity does not step in, whose fault - will it be?'(Vol. I., Ch. XVI., page 378.)

Letter to Behramji Malabari on how to understand the Vedas (Menant, pages 300-301)

I am deeply interested in the effect my Hibbert Lectures will produce in India. When writing them I was often thinking of my friends in your country more than of my audience at Westminster ..... I wanted to tell those few at least whom I might hope to reach in English, what the true historical value of their ancient religion is, as looked upon, not from exclusively European or Christian, but from a historical point of view. I wished to warn against two dangers: that of undervaluing or despising the ancient national religion, as is done too often by your half-Europeanized youths; and that of over valuing it, and interpreting it as it was never meant to be interpreted, of which you may see a painful instance in Dayananda Sarasvati's labours on Veda. Accept the veda as an ancient historical account, containing thoughts in accordance with the character of an ancient and simple-minded race of men, and you will be able to admire it, and to retain some of it - particularly the teachings of the Upanishads, even in these modern days. But discover in it steam engines and electricity, and European philosophy and morality, and you deprive it of its true character, you destroy its real value, and you break historical continuity and try to understand it, and you will then have less difficulty in finding the right way toward the future.


  1. ^  Müller biography at Gifford Lectures website
  2. ^  Müller archive
  3. ^  Müller, F. Max. India, What can it teach us, Lecture I, 1882.
  4. ^  Müller, Georgina, The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller, 2 vols. London: Longman, 1902.
  5. ^  Müller, F. Max. Three Lectures on the Science of Language, etc., with a Supplement, My Predecessors. 3rd ed. Chicago, 1899, p. 5.
  6. ^  Müller, F. Max. Chips from a German Workshop, second edition, 1866, p. 27.
  7. ^  Müller, F. Max. India, What can it teach us, Lecture IV, p. 118, 1882.
  8. ^  Müller, F. Max. Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas, p. 120
  9. ^  Müller, F. Max. Ramakrishna His Life and Sayings
  10. ^  Müller, F. Max. Rig-Veda-Samhita: The Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans
  11. ^  Menant M D, (1907) "Influence of Max Muller’s Hibbert Lectures in India", The American Journal of Theology, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 293-307, available to [jstor] subscribers
  • Lourens P. van den Bosch, Friedrich Max Müller: A Life Devoted to the Humanities, 2002. Recent biography sets him in the context of Victorian intellectual culture.
  • Jon R. Stone (ed.), The Essential Max Müller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion, New York: Palgrave, 2002. Collection of 19 essays; also includes an intellectual biography.


  • A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature So Far As It Illustrates the Primitive Religion of the Brahmans (1859)
  • Lectures on the Science of Language (1864, 2 vols.)
  • Chips from a German Workshop (1867-75, 4 vols.)
  • Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873)
  • India, What can it Teach Us? (1883)
  • Biographical Essays (1884)
  • The Science of Thought (1887)
  • Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy (1899)
  • Gifford Lectures of 1888–92 (Collected Works, vols. 1-4)
    • Natural Religion (1889)
    • Physical Religion (1891)
    • Anthropological Religion (1892)
    • Theosophy, or Psychological Religion (1893)
  • Auld Lang Syne (1898), a memoir
  • My Autobiography: A Fragment (1901)
  • The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller (1902, 2 vols.)

See also

  • Paul Deussen
  • Sacred Books of the East
  • Aryan Invasion Theory

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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