Book Review: India, What Can It Teach Us? by Max Muller

India: What Can it Teach Us? by Max Muller
Max Muller was a Sanskrit scholar and Orientologist who rose to fame with his translation of the Rig Veda and several other Sanskrit literatures from India. He was part of a small group of Historians who sometimes defined and in other times redefined India’s past based on theories that they felt were justified by archaeological or historical evidences. History so well crafted, politically authorized and mass publicized that no other modern historians have been able to break these shackles of preconceived ideas and thoughts to accept anything different about India’s history today.
This book is a series of lectures he gave to Indian Civil Service officers of Colonial Britain at the University of Cambridge, before they were commissioned on administrative assignments in India for 10-20 years. It largely talks about how Britishers’ should not look at India from a biased colonist point of view, but learn from its rich history and heritage dating back to 3000 years or more. Max Muller makes a case for how Sanskrit literature is rich in content and context sometimes surpassing Greek literature that most Europeans are largely appreciative of. He talks about the wisdom espoused in the Rig Veda around concepts such as religion and philosophy thereby attributing cultural richness to the nation.
The author belabors the point that the true India is in the village communities of the country. He talks about how the villages of India have defined the social strata, legal structure and cultural outlook of the nation as compared to its cities and towns that saw years of occupation and plunder from outside nations. The author’s main fascination is however around Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. He talks about Sanskrit as the elder sister of the Indo European languages and urges the civil service officers to learn Sanskrit on their arrival in India. He also laments the bad image created of India by British historians like James Mills and urges these officers to instead seek Indian History from the journals of Colonel William Sleeman, a British officer commissioned to handle thuggery in Indian villages.
Max Muller comes out as a very respectable figure in his brief lectures captured in this book. Whether he made any true impact on the British officers who attended his lecture is doubtful as the intent of British administrators was never meant to shower love on India or Indians. They occupied the nation for economic purposes and maintained their hegemony as long as it mattered for the mother country.
The author generously praises India a lot in this book and probably talks more passionately about the country in some cases when compared with other Indian nationalists of his time. He calls India a “paradise on earth” and a place where the greatest achievement of the human mind under the sky was realized. He however largely talks about these in the context of an India that existed 2000 years before, well before Buddha or Christ, and not the state of the country when it was under British rule.
Max Muller however suffers from using the same convoluted lens that other European historians have used to intuitively capture the history of the East, especially India, primarily based on the Aryan invasion theory. Like other historians of his kind, he comes with a preconceived notion on Aryan history and its origins. He makes glaring assumptions on how Aryans originated somewhere in Europe and their conquests pushed local aborigines (dasyus) further South in the country. This theory based purely on color of the skin of the native inhabitants and misinterpreted lines in the Rig Veda lack any convincing storyline. This mindset in reflected in how his showering of praise for the nation is also intermixed with a call for “sympathy” towards Indians. The other delusion that his work suffers from, like all other European Historians, is to consider “India” as a country in its entirety with a singular cultural or historical identity. This was probably done to provide uniformity in thoughts to its readers and sponsors, mostly rich colonial European administrators. India as a country was a fictitious creation of the Mughal invaders way back, but then even they didn’t consider the Southern part of India as part of the Hindustan that they mapped out. India turned out to be a creation of European invaders and trading companies, who cared less about its cultural diversity, if not the ethnic and linguistic history of its inhabitants. It’s a shame that this theory was well supported by the free India created in 1947 as it helped serve the federal or union building efforts of the then government. A simple way to look at this anomaly is in seeing what the World would have thought if Asian Historians self proclaiming themselves as experts would pool together the entire European nations and call them as a single country called “Europe” occupied by white inhabitants with a single religion tied to the Christian faith! This was how European authorities or historical savants viewed India as and got away with it.
The author also hurriedly tries to explain the antiquity of Indian literature in the context of the Rig Veda by making a case for how writing the Rig Veda onto paper was not the intent of the ancient Indians, but the goal was to have a select group of people memorize them and pass them over the years. But, he struggles to confidently claim that the Rig Veda shows an advanced culture dating back to 1500BC or even earlier. I believe the tendency for European historians and archaeologists to pick an earthen pot and use flawed carbon dating to confidently attach chronological evidence also forced him to still consider literary evidence as those scribbled on paper, wood or rocks as true beacons of dated history.
Overall, this book is a good read for anyone interested in the works of European orientologists and Indian History. At a bare minimum, this book reflects the historical fact that British colonists did organize a series of lectures to outgoing civil service officers by calling in noted European historians for sharing their perspectives on India. Sometimes, it’s the intent that matters rather than the results. The British government had a good intent in teaching its select cadre of talented people something more about the nation they occupied, although that knowledge, to Max Muller’s disappointment, didn’t percolate well enough to the British public in general.

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