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Kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien

Studies in Cultural and Social Sciences

Herausgegeben von/Edited by
Stefan Breuer, Eckart Otto,
Hubert Treiber

Band/Volume 9

Harrassowitz Verlag · Wiesbaden

© 2014, Otto Harrassowitz GmbH & Co. KG, Wiesbaden

ISBN Print: 9783447068710 — ISBN E-Book: 9783447191364
Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn

Archives of Origins
Sanskrit, Philology, Anthropology
in 19th Century Germany
Translated from French
by Dominique Bach and Richard Willet

Harrassowitz Verlag · Wiesbaden

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The french edition L’archive des origines. Sanskrit, philologie, anthropologie dans
l’Allemagne du XIXe siécle was published by Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris 2008.

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Preface by Charles Malamoud . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Abbreviations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Introduction: India, a German Passion?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15


CHAPTER ONE – A SANSKRIT REVOLUTION௘?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31

Scienti¿c Discovery: between Rupture and Continuity. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
From India to Europe, the Formation of Knowledge about Sanskrit. . . . . . . . . . 34
A Long-standing Curiosity towards India . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
In the Beginning, the French and the English . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
Paris at the Crossroads of European Orientalisms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
From Bengal to Germany. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Learning Sanskrit in Europe. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Sanskrit Studies in Germany . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
A Philosophical, Scienti¿c or Romantic Project? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophical Project. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Franz Bopp’s Scienti¿c Standpoint . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59

CHAPTER II – IS INDOLOGY A FORM OF HUMANISM ௘? . . . . . . . . . . . . 67

Philology, Theology, Orientalism: Intertwined Evolutions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
The Formation of the Exegetic Tradition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
Towards non-Biblical Orientalist Philology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70
Sanskrit, a New Oriental Subject . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73
The Implications of Prussian Neo-Humanism. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
Prussia in the Era of University Reforms. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
The Reluctance of Classical Philologists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
The Philological Dispute over Myths, and its Consequences . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
Sanskrit in German Universities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
A Discreet Entrance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Bonn and Berlin: Competing Practices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Indology and the Sciences of Antiquity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84
August Wilhelm Schlegel and the ‘Model’ of Classical Philology . . . . . . . . 84
Christian Lassen, the Worthy Heir . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
Indology and the Philology of Things . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91

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6 Table of contents

THE HEGEMONY OF COMPARATIVISM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

CHAPTER III – THE SCHOOL OF GERMAN INDOLOGY . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

Comparativism as a Token of Legitimacy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
The Progress of Comparative Grammar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
The Development of Chairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
Comparativism as a Methodological Principle: August Schleicher . . . . . . . . 106
The Birth of Vedic Studies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
Linguistic Comparativism at the Service of the Historical Approach . . . . . . 110
The Slow Debuts of Vedic Study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
Eugène Burnouf’s Incentive Role . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115
The Spearhead of German Indology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
Vedic Studies Take Wing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
German Domination. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122
The Archives of the Human Mind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
Documenting the History of the Human Mind. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
Human Mind, “Indo-European” Mind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
Romantic Resurgences. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128
High Antiquity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128
The Archaic Nature of the Vedas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130

CHAPTER IV – A SOURCE FOR SCIENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135

Indology and Religion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Variations around the Problematics of Religion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Sanskrit and the History of Religions: the Reasons for an Atypical Chair . . 138
Historical Critique to the Test of Vedic Writings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Liberal Protestantism and the Ethic of Returning to Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
European Science to the Rescue of Hinduism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
In Search of a Common Religious Fund . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
The Services of Etymology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148
Adalbert Kuhn and the Comparative Study of Indo-European Myths. . . . . . 149
Friedrich Max Müller and the Ambition of a Comparative Science
of Mythology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Myth and Language: A Pathological Relationship? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154
The Comparative Science of Religion versus the General History of Religions 157
From Mythology to Religion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
A Science Modelled on Comparative Grammar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160
Rudolf Roth and the Refusal of Religious Essentialism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
Dissensions and Convergences around the “German School”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
Discordances to a Background of Rivalries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
The Issues of National Belonging . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167

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THE CHALLENGES OF ANTHROPOLOGY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173


OF INDO -EUROPEAN COMPARATIVISM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
The Promotion of the Indo-European Notion at the Time
of German National Unity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
In Search of the Past of the German Nation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
The Policy of the State in Favour of Comparative Grammar . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
From Kiel to Breslau, the Transformations of the Chairs
of Indology in the 1870s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 178
German Indologists Faced with the Rise of “Aryanist” Theories . . . . . . . . . . . . 180
The “Bildungsbürgertum” and Bismarck’s Policy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180
The “Indo-Germanic People”, an Epistemological Drift . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184
The Issue of the Original Homeland of “Indo-Germans” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186
Physical Anthropology, a Cumbersome Neighbour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189
From “Indo-Germanic People” to “Aryan Race”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192
Philology, a Natural Science or a Human Science?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194
The Controversial Sharing of Knowledge in the Era of Positivism. . . . . . . . 196
Speech, Language and Speaker: between Nature and Mind . . . . . . . . . . . . . 197
From Linguistic to Anthropological Investigation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199
The Critical Transfer of Comparative Grammar in France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201
The Immigrant Fate of German Jewish Indologists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201
The Slow Penetration of Comparative Grammar in France. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205
A Militant Transfer: A War against “False Erudition” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207
A Critical Transfer: Comparativism Revisited . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211


A QUESTION OF SCALE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 219
“Returning India to the Indians” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 220
The New Veda by Abel Bergaigne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 220
The New Generation of German Indology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 224
The Indian Nature of the ‫ۿ‬gveda . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228
The Authority of Commentaries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
The Status of Native Commentators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
Armchair Philology Put to the Test in the Field. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
A Place of Honour for the Indian Tradition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 236
Ancient India Reconsidered . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238
When the ‫ۿ‬gveda Fell off its Pedestal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238
Comparative Mythology into Question . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
Naturmythologie, nevertheless . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 242
Towards a Rede¿nition of “the Primitive” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245

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The Lessons of Anthropology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 246

British Evolutionists and the Social Aspect of Religion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 246
The School of Analogy versus the School of Etymology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
The ‫ۿ‬gveda Loses its Exclusivity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 251
The Scale of Comparisons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 263
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 273

ANNEXES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295

Indicative Chronology Germany – United Kingdom – France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295
Chairs in Indology in Germany and at German-speaking Universities
outside of Germany until 1914 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 309
Chairs in Indology and Comparative Grammar in Germany . . . . . . . . . . . . . 310
Chairs in Indology and Comparative Grammar in German-speaking
Universities outside of Germany . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 320
Main Journals on Indology and Comparative Grammar in Germany
in the 19th Century. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 323

Bibliographical Update . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 325

Glossary of Terms Relating to Vedism. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 329
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 331

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Once, noting that one of his French colleagues or disciples had been guilty of a blunder,
my mentor Armand Minard raised his arms to the sky and exclaimed, half-seriously,
half-jokingly: “What will the Germans say!” A good Germanist himself, he pronounced
German words slowly, with reverent delectation. This was around 1960, almost half a
century after the end of the period covered by Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn’s book. To
him, German science represented a kind of superego. This was more or less the case
with all Indologists in his generation.
Like Louis Renou, Armand Minard was a professor at the Sorbonne and a direc-
tor of studies in the philological and historical science section of the Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes. He taught Sanskrit as well as the comparative grammar of Indo-
European languages. All these headings bear the mark of the German inÀuence. Pascale
Rabault-Feuerhahn perfectly brings this to light: in France, the Ecole Pratique des
Hautes Etudes was created as a place where knowledge transmission would be an
integral part of what is called research. Ex cathedra teaching was replaced by a sys-
tem of seminars, inspired from long-proven practices in German universities. Masters
and students would present and discuss the projects they had embarked on, which
were supposed to be original works. The role of masters was to train students in the
methods and techniques that would enable them to contribute to the production of
new knowledge.
As regards philology and philological sciences, a major contribution of Pascale
Rabault-Feuerhahn is showing how the interest in Indian writings, and primarily San-
skrit texts, could give rise to their philology. Again, it was in Germany that things ¿rst
took shape. This is a striking aspect of the “German passion” for India. The constant
ambition of the ¿rst German Indologists was to apply the methods of Greek philol-
ogy to Indian documents. In doing so, they were founders – and they have remained
models. It was through their efforts to attain this goal that they acquired the reputation
of impeccably scrupulous and erudite scholars. How can one edit texts, establish their
accurate version and fully understand them, in order to translate them as faithfully
as possible? Such work can only be achieved with the appropriate instruments, and
these had yet to be created: grammar, dictionaries, and all kinds of repertories. Ger-
man Indologists decisively contributed to this gigantic undertaking. However, Pascale
Rabault-Feuerhahn clearly shows how German Indologists had to ¿ght in order for
Indian writings to be acknowledged as lending themselves to philology.
This aspect of her book directly falls within the province of German studies in that
it concerns the intellectual history of Germany in the 19th century – movement of ideas,
academic careers and institutions. Yet the issues evoked arose under diverse forms
amongst Indologists of all countries. To what extent could the newly-formed Indian

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10 Preface

philology produce a new form of humanism that would include the Indian heritage in
the culture of mankind?
India was neither Greece nor the land of the Bible. Could it be featured alongside
them? Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn has constantly had to go back to the question of the
reason behind Indian studies. To the people that Indologists were addressing, the mere
desire to get acquainted with the form of humanity that Indian civilisation represented
would not have been enough. To satisfy the academic authorities, the erudite opinion,
the student public that they had to attract – and even themselves – Indologists always
had to justify their interest in India. This knowledge was useful to set up and strengthen
other forms of knowledge, such as the comparative grammar of Indo-European lan-
guages, comparative mythology, the primitive stages of the human branch whence
Indo-European races and ethnic groups derived, and even what we could call the
dawn of mankind. In any case, in this justi¿cation system the value of ancient Indian
writings was that they gave access to what had preceded them, making it possible to
hypothetically reconstruct an original past.
In this nebula of interests, in this compulsive fervour concerning origins, one thing
remained solid if approached with rigour and simplicity: the branch of linguistics
that the comparative grammar of Indo-European languages represented. It could only
take shape thanks to the discovery and systematic study of Sanskrit. Furthermore, it
required that German scholars free themselves from the chieÀy-Romantic notion that
there was a special af¿nity between the German language, the German mind and the
approximation of an Indo-European language and mind that Sanskrit and the Vedic
myths and poetry were supposed to be. All in all, it became necessary to acknowledge
that, although it ended up asserting itself in German-speaking countries, the expres-
sion indogermanisch was arbitrary and deceptive, and did not give a proper account
of the situation it was supposed to refer to. For a while, this notion had challenged
another doxa, more persistent and rooted in the German tradition: that of a privileged
relationship between German and Greek, which were considered as the only two truly
philosophical languages.
The “anthropological extension” of philology, to use Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn’s
wording, represents a more uncertain domain, a ¿eld that is favourable to arbitrary
speculation and the most aggressive ideological assertions. The “extension” towards
“anthropology” was no more a German characteristic than the construction of com-
parative grammar. In Germany, however, the notion of an “Aryan” mythology and
religion, as well as an “Aryan” people – even race – took on an especially harmful
turn. It was received and used by a nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist movement of
opinion that was developing – diversely expressed and with numerous variants – dur-
ing the period studied by Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn. In that it is based on writings,
archive documents and archaeological accounts, the history of religions pertains to
general history and, in principle, should be able to conform with the scienti¿c criteria
of this discipline.
But in the 19th century, anthropology was a much vaguer notion – an interest
in search of its subject and method. It would take time and much work before it

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Preface 11

became obvious that a distinction had to be made between physical anthropology on

the one hand, social and cultural anthropology on the other; before there was a critical
questioning of the propensity to assess cultures according to some generally implicit
hierarchy and consider the course of time as either progress or decline; before it was
acknowledged that racism was a scienti¿c asininity.
Today’s readers are relieved to note that Romantic Indomania and ideologies based
on special af¿nity between Germany and India (envisaged only in its “Aryan” compo-
nent) mostly spread and prevailed amongst the laymen rather than amongst academic
scholars. Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn does not linger on this; it is not her intention.
However, these outsiders did exist and, should one venture towards these non-profes-
sionals, one would note that they had a strange and powerful inÀuence. Adopted by cer-
tain obscure esoteric cults, the swastika was adorned with the prestige of the venerable
Indian swastika symbol. Mysteriously, immediately after World War One it became the
emblem of the national-socialist party and then the Third Reich. To the Indians, this
certainly has not gone unnoticed. In 1981, for instance, V. T. Rajshekar, the leader of
the revolutionary movement called Dalit (meaning ‘oppressed’ and adopted by the Un-
touchables to refer to themselves), published a virulent diatribe against the Brahmans,
saying that for millenniums they imposed their harsh domination on Indian society. To
him, this domination was in essence a form of racism, and not only was “Brahmanism”
similar to fascist dictatorships and Nazism, it was also the direct inspirational source
for these ideologies. It was with the Brahmans that European Indologists, especially
German and British ones, acquired their views of India, and it was from them that they
drew the ideas that were going to be those of Nazism. The adventure of the swastika,
Rajshekar added, was precisely an indication of this inÀuence.௘1 All this goes beyond
the time frame and domain set by Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn, who precisely warns us
against the temptation of retrospective readings: what makes sense in a given situation
is not necessarily a forewarning sign of what is to come.
This book by Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn is valuable for the large amount of data it
puts into order, as well as the light it sheds on 19th-century German universities and the
debates and affects that arose from the apparition of India on the horizon of scholars. Its
worth also extents to serving as a model and basis for further studies – some of them, let
us hope, could be achieved by Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn herself – on closely related
domains: the India of philosophers (Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche), or India viewed
by philologist-philosophers through its own philosophical production (the works of
P. Deussen and G. Thibaut come to mind). Lastly, Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn puts us
in a position to approach more safely the periods that follow the one she has studied.
What became of German Indology under the Third Reich? Did Indologists welcome
the regime more clearly and spontaneously than specialists in other disciplines, for
instance Hellenists?
What happened in the second half of the 20th century? Indology progressively grew
global. Even though there were strong academic traditions in each European culture,

1 See V. T. Rajshekar, Brahminism, 3rd ed., Bangalore 2002, p. 70 s.

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12 Preface

it must be noted that centres of Indian studies multiplied and scattered. As was the
case with so many other scienti¿c domains, a large number of Indologists Àed from
3rd Reich-dominated Europe or left crumbling, post-war Germany. With decoloniza-
tion, Indology extended worldwide, even including Indology in India: inspired by
Western methods – while criticising the colonial ideology – philological and historical
research was added to or took the place of the traditional knowledge of the pandits. The
link between the study of Sanskrit and the comparative grammar of Indo-European
languages slackened. With the discovery of the Hittite language, the notion of “Indo-
European” became more complex and Sanskrit data no longer occupied a privileged
position in the hypothetical reconstruction of this ensemble. Last and not least, al-
though the Indian sub-continent was increasingly perceived as an in¿nitely diverse
linguistic and cultural area, scholars strove to highlight common characteristics. There
was Northern and Southern India; Indo-Aryan-speaking India and Dravidian-speaking
India (to mention only two components amongst many); however, the underlying mil-
lenarian network of interactions became apparent. In the study of India, the passion
for organisation succeeded the passion for origins brilliantly put into perspective by
Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn.

Charles Malamoud

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I wish to thank Professor Hubert Treiber for his invitation to publish an English version
of my book L’Archive des origines in his Kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien
series and for his constant and generous support through the realisation of this project.

My deep gratitude goes to Dominique Bach and Rick Willett for their careful and in-
tense work on the translation.

Stefan Krauss deserves special thanks for his meticulous typesetting and his unstint-
ing helpfulness.

This English version would not have materialised without the ¿nancial support of the
French Centre national du livre (CNL) and of the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS),
Paris. My heartfelt thanks to these institutions.

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Manuscript Sources
Be.Ak.Wiss. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin
Bl. Blatt (sheet, page)
[Ill.] illegible
NL. Nachlass (funds, papers)
Slg. Sammlung (collection)
StaBi Staatsbibliothek Berlin; preussischer Kulturbesitz, Haus 2
UBT Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen

Sanskrit Terms
Sanskrit terms are transcribed with diacritic signs. But Sanskrit terms found in English,
such as “pandit”, “pali”, “prakrit” or “Brahman” are written in their Anglicised form,
as are the terms Vedas and Avesta, now commonly used. When a Sanskrit term ap-
pears within a quote or a book title, the spelling used by the author has been retained.

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India, a German Passion?

For a long time, European knowledge of ‘Oriental’௘1 cultures was limited to the Muslim
area, from Barbary to the Levant. There were two reasons for this: one – positive –
concerned the link between Islam and the Abrahamic heritage, as well as the fact that
mastering the Semitic languages proved to be of great help to Bible exegesis. The other,
de¿ned by default, was that the Far East was dif¿cult to gain access to. Totally closed
up under the Shogun regime, Japan was to remain inaccessible to Europeans until at
least the early Meiji era (1867–1912). Once the privileged investigation territory of
the Jesuits, China had been abandoned during the 18th century after several contro-
versies: Jesuit missionaries adapting Christian rituals to the local environment and the
Biblical chronology called into question by the Chinese chronology, which dated back
far beyond the date assigned to Genesis in the Old Testament, etc. Yet, at the turn of
the 18th and 19th centuries, acquaintance with such discoveries as cuneiform writ-
ings, hieroglyphs and Sanskrit enlarged the horizon of European conscience. German
scholars were not outdone in this trend towards curiosity and discovery. Especially
regarding Sanskrit, they gained considerable lead over other European countries in
just a few decades. The works achieved at the time – grammars, critical editions and
monographs on Ancient India – still hold their own among Indology bibliographies.௘2
The Petersburger Sanskrit-Wörterbuch (St. Petersburg Sanskrit-German Dictionary,
1855–1875, 7 volumes) is quite emblematic of this situation and has remained a refer-
ence book in several respects; its authors, Rudolf Roth and Otto von Böhtlingk, worked
on it for over twenty years, along with many collaborators.௘3
However, before this German boom, it was the development of Great Britain’s
colonial enterprise in India that enticed people to learn the Sanskrit language. The
pioneers of Indology were the British administrators posted in Bengal, who joined
their efforts in forming the Asiatic Society of Calcutta (Kolkata). India and the study
of Sanskrit subsequently attracted growing interest in the German states, which had
no colonial interest in that part of the world. This has given rise to many questions in
the last decades. Indeed, it hardly ¿ts into the interpretative framework of postcolonial

1 According to a tripartition of the world opposing the Christian Western world, the wild world and
the Orient, civilised in the same way as Europe.
2 The German term Indologie designates all the university disciplines based on the study of Ancient
Indian texts.
3 R. Roth, Zur Geschichte des Sanskrit-Wörterbuchs. Gesprochen in der Versammlung der Orien-
talisten zu Innsbruck, am 29 Sept. 1874, von R. Roth, Bulletin de l’Académie Impériale des
Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg 21, 1876, p. 410–426.

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16 Introduction

theories, which consider that scienti¿c Orientalism developed in close relation with
European imperialism. Actually, if one envisages the German interest for India in the
light of these theories, each geographical term of analysis is a problem. According to
Edward W. Said, the ‘Orient’ does not exist as such; it is an arti¿cial creation whose
outlines are de¿ned by political, literary or scienti¿c discourse and whose function is
to nurture the Europeans’ fanciful representations of foreigners. It also plays a part in
the colonial enterprise in two ways: it justi¿es it and it takes from the representatives
of “Oriental” cultures their right to express themselves about their own cultures. The
discourse of Orientalists (writers, scholars, journalists and political experts) was the
only “authoritative” one (in both meanings of the term), to such a point that it was
imposed on Orientals and contributed to structuring their societies. Said wrote Orien-
talism in the midst of the conÀict in Lebanon. Wishing to deconstruct the links between
knowledge and power, he deliberately focused on the case of the Arab-Muslim world,
to his eyes a favourable ground for revealing the imperialist implications in Oriental-
ist discourses. India was therefore excluded from this study. As for the Germans, who
did not take part in the race for colonisation in this part of the world,௘4 they were not
taken into account.
Yet India, the jewel of the British Empire, can hardly be overlooked without distort-
ing the analysis. Faced with this issue, several authors have attempted to extend the
Saidian model to India, underlying that although they were supposedly truly indepen-
dent from politics, most scienti¿c views on India were submitted to the utilitarian im-
peratives set up by the colonial administration. The American anthropologist Bernard
S. Cohn has shown the British motives for mastering the various Indian languages –
from Persian spoken at the Mughal court to the Sanskrit of canonic texts, including
the vernacular tongues used by Indians in their daily exchanges: the main motivation
behind learning these languages was to dominate the population. This will to control
was such that at the end of the 19th century, it gave rise to the artefact that was the
Hindustani language.௘5 The historian Ronald Inden shares this ambition to apply Said’s

4 E. W. Said, Orientalism, New York 1978; I’m referring here to the French translation by Cathe-
rine Malamoud published in 1980 (republished by Editions du Seuil, 2005). In an interview he
gave to the journal Le Monde Arabe dans la recherche scienti¿que (March 4, 1994) Said bluntly
responded to the criticism that reproached him for having neglected Germany in his theoretical
elaborations: “I did specify that I was studying Orientalism not from the standpoint of everything
that had been written on the Orient, but only from that of the powers that had colonial interest in
the Middle-East: France, Great Britain, and the USA after WWII. One can study German Orien-
talism as much as one wants. It just happened that as far as I’m concerned, I was not interested in
the epistemology of all Oriental studies, but only of those that were related to an imperial project.
The stupidity of those who still use this non-pertinent criticism – if it is criticism – leads me to
think that all they want is to show their intelligence and knowledge that there were some Ger-
man books on the Orient. Yet I would like one of them to tell me what contributions the Germans
provided for my subject, rather than assert that there were a few Germans who wrote about the
Middle East”. (Interview published in French in the journal.)
5 B. S. Cohn, The command of language and the language of command, Subaltern Studies IV, 1985,
p. 276–329.

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India, a German Passion? 17

theoretical model to the case of India, and he has even intensi¿ed it. To him, it hardly
matters whether Orientalists (understood here as scholars) had or did not have moral
intentions, or whether or not the image they had of India was positive. In both cases,
while Indological discourses do contain descriptive observations, they also inevitably
include comments that depict reality as deviant compared to Western normality; there-
fore what is intended as description becomes misinformation. According to Inden, this
distortion of reality can be interpreted on the Freudian model of dream interpretation.
An Orientalist never studies more than a portion of reality, and he only does so through
the prism of his own world of reference. The resulting feeling of otherness forces him
to return to his subject of research and bring it back to some rational con¿guration.
Yet the semblance of order thus attained remains but an intellectual construction, in no
way inherent to the reality under study.௘6
While India is thus connected to the Saidian theory of Orientalism, there remains
to ¿nd out whether such analyses can be applied to the case of Germany. Ronald Inden
maintains that German works deal with India in very favourable light. According to
him, these works stand out by their “Romantic, spiritualistic or idealistic” features
and their tendency to deem worthy of interest and even to promote some aspects of
Indian culture that were discredited in British studies, the latter being fundamentally
“positivist” and “materialistic”. Indeed, the British were highlighting India’s otherness
in order to show that, on a political level, the sub-continent had everything to gain in
being under the rational supervision of the West. On the German side, this otherness
was perceived as the proof that, on an individual level, the Western man can ¿nd in
India the irrationalism he is so terribly lacking.
Yet to Inden this mystical quest is an indication that the “Romantics” were nev-
ertheless motivated by pro¿t seeking, in that India was supposed to provide the keys
to the regeneration of Germany. This pattern of interpretation has enjoyed undoubted
fortune. When the American Indologist Sheldon Pollock takes up his pen, it takes a
more radical turn:௘7 “In the German instance, however, Orientalism as a complex of
knowledge-power has to be seen as vectored not outward to the Orient but inward
to Europe itself, to constructing the conception of a historical German essence and
to de¿ning Germany’s place in Europe’s destiny.”௘8 The German case can therefore
be read as a mirror of the British one. While British Orientalism pertained to outside
colonisation and the “domination of Asia”, German Orientalists tried to re-invest their
own past and carry out interior colonisation. After “Christian evangelism” and “Brit-
ish colonialism”, German Orientalism represents the third stage in the development of
Sanskrit studies – a step characterised by the combination of science and Romanticism

6 R. Inden, Orientalist constructions of India, Modern Asian Studies XX/3, 1986, p. 401–446; Imag-
ining India, Cambridge/Oxford 1992.
7 S. Pollock, Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and power beyond the Raj, in: C. A. Brecken-
ridge/P. van der Veer (ed.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Perspectives on South
Asia, Philadelphia 1993, p. 76–133.
8 Ibid., p. 100.

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18 Introduction

(Romanticism-Wissenschaft). For Pollock, the Germans expected Sanskrit to provide a

solution to de¿ne their national essence in an autonomous fashion, in relation to Latin
and Christian cultures. He claims that this quest was dominated by the representation
of an existing community “of Indo-German spirit” and that this concept gradually took
on a racial turn, becoming the counterpart of the “Semitic” one. This, he says, happened
both in reaction to the Jewish emancipation movement that started in the mid 19th cen-
tury and under the inÀuence of Orientalist knowledge: held by the Indians themselves,
the discourse on “Aryanism” and its racial superiority was relayed by the British and
thus made accessible to the Germans. Yet how does one explain the role it played in
Germany while it had no effect in Great Britain? “If the ‘German issue’ is an identity
issue and if ‘the German form of totalitarianism’ is racism, […] then the discourse on
Aryanism, and therefore the Orientalist movement on which it rested, were likely to
play a role, in Germany, that they could not have played in England.”௘9 In both cases,
Orientalism has no value other than an ideological one and it aims to disparage a whole
segment of the population, in order to better marginalise and dominate it.௘10
In order to succeed in integrating the German instance into the general framework
of Orientalism criticism, Inden and Pollock played on the different meanings of the
term “interest”: at the ¿rst level, the “interest” of the Germans is de¿ned as attraction
and intellectual curiosity, opposing that of the British, which boils down to their wish
for appropriation. At the second level, the opposition between the Germans and the
British is analysed in light of what India was expected to bring to Germany. It was
therefore reduced to a motivation that could be quali¿ed as “interested”, even though
the gain thus sought out concerned their national identity and not some territorial ex-
pansion. In reality, none of these interpretations of the term “interest” is truly new; they
can respectively be linked to the two main currents in the traditional historiography of
German Indology, which I’d like to qualify here as “anti-utilitarian” and “teleologi-
cal”. The anti-utilitarian interpretation of German Indology is the oldest one, being
concomitant with the beginning of Indology: the ¿rst German Sanskritists were al-
ready working with the good conscience of those driven solely by the love of science,
as opposed to the alleged pragmatism and utilitarianism of their English colleagues.
Traces of this can be found as early as 1832 in an article by A. W. Schlegel presenting
the state of knowledge about India in Europe.௘11 Heinrich Heine echoed a comparable
feeling when he opposed the mercenary motivations of colonising nations with the
erudite motives of the Germans:

Was das Sanskrit-Studium selbst betrifft, so wird über den Nutzen desselben
die Zeit entscheiden. Portugiesen, Holländer und Engländer haben schon lange

9 Ibid., p. 83.
10 J. Jenkins, German Orientalism: Introduction, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the
Middle East 24/2, 2004, p. 97–100, gives an analysis along the same line of interpretation.
11 A. W. Schlegel, RéÀexions sur l’étude des langues asiatiques, adressées à Sir James Mackintosh,
suivies d’une lettre à M. Horace Hayman Wilson, Bonn/Paris 1832.

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India, a German Passion? 19

Zeit jahraus, jahrein auf ihren großen Schiffen die Schätze Indiens nach Hause
geschleppt; wir Deutsche hatten immer das Zusehn. Aber die geistigen Schätze
Indiens sollen uns nicht entgehen. Schlegel, Bopp, Humboldt, Frank usw. sind
unsere jetzigen Ostindienfahrer; Bonn und München werden gute Faktoreien
sein. [As concerns the study of Sanskrit itself, time will decide of its usefulness.
For quite a long time now, the Portuguese, Dutch and Britons have been bring-
ing India’s treasures back home on their large ships, year in year out; we, the
Germans, have always simply watched them doing it. Yet the spiritual treasures
of India shall not escape us. Today, Schlegel, Bopp, Humboldt, Frank etc. are
our sailors bound for East India; Bonn and Munich will be excellent factories.௘12]

This divide between the British and German approaches has become a true historio-
graphical leitmotiv. At the other end of the century, in the introduction to his history of
Indian literature, Moriz Winternitz still made the same observation: German Indologi-
cal scholarship stands out thanks to the amount and quality of its achievements, and
although the British Sanskritists had a pioneering role, their motivations were purely
pragmatic.௘13 It is only logical, he remarks, given the special af¿nity between the Ger-
man mind and the Indian mind. Both share a common propensity to contemplation and
abstract speculation, a tendency to pantheism, a weariness of the world (Weltschmerz)
and true sentimentality, as well as a strong taste for nature and the ability to elaborate
erudition systems.௘14
There, precisely, lies the breaking point between the anti-utilitarian thesis and the
teleological current, the other trend in the historiography of German Indology. In the
utilitarian view, this type of essentialist argument is taken seriously and used to demon-
strate that in Indological studies, the Germans were only spurred on by the enthusiasm
they felt for a world so close to theirs. Conversely, in the teleological perspective, the
notion of spiritual kinship between India and Germany is kept at a distance and it is
stressed that it pertains to ideology. Still, it remains perceived as the motive behind
German Indology as a whole. Consequently, the suspicion of an ideological basis ex-
tends to the very discipline itself. In an article on “The dream of philologists in the 19th
century: inÀection and origins”, the Indologist Annie Montaut examines how the argu-
ment of Indian-German af¿nity paved the way for the emergence of National Social-
ism.௘15 She observes that the history of German Indology is marked by a proton-pseudo
made by Friedrich Schlegel in Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (Essay

12 W. Leifer, Indien und die Deutschen. 500 Jahre Begegnung und Partnerschaft, Tübingen/Basel
1969, p. 147.
13 M. Winternitz, Geschichte der indischen Literatur, vol. 1, 1908, repr. Stuttgart 1968, p. 8–9. The
anti-utilitarian reading of German Indology extended until the 20th century; see J. Lütt, Einlei-
tung, in: Utopie – Projektion – Gegenbild. Indien in Deutschland, Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch,
1987/3, p. 391–393.
14 Winternitz, p. 6–7.
15 A. Montaut, Le rêve du philologue au XIXe siècle: Àexions et origines, Corps écrits 34: Rêver
l’Inde, 1990, p. 45–55.

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20 Introduction

on the Language and Wisdom of Indians) in 1808. Schlegel put forward a typology of
languages mainly based on the difference between “inÀected languages”, formed by
internal modi¿cation of word roots, and languages with af¿xes, where pre¿xes and
suf¿xes are added. In reality, some inÀections identi¿ed by Schlegel strongly resemble
af¿xes;௘16 so it can be said that his typology is based on an act of bad faith aiming to
establish the superiority of a linguistic group – the famous inÀected languages – over
others. That both German and Sanskrit belong to the same group is interpreted, as
early as the following generations, as an indication of a racial kinship; this made it
possible to oppose the Aryan race to the Semitic race, the “hereditary enemy”. The
birth of comparative grammar on German soil, the emergence of the dichotomy Aryan
versus Semitic, the Antiaufklärung and nationalist movements as well as an institu-
tional framework that encouraged the development of research, all these “more precise
factors lead us to see this great passion as a speci¿c historical moment. […] Combined
with already-existing anti-Semitism, they could only catalyse the discourse on ‘com-
parative grammar’ that was to enable this group to ‘originate itself’, i. e. to identify
itself through opposition.”௘17
Whether the traditional interpretations of German Indology were made in order
to defend some instinctive enthusiasm towards Indian culture or whether they saw in
this attraction to India an overdetermination tinted with nationalist and anti-Semitic
concerns, they have in common that they all underline its irreducible speci¿city. There-
fore, one better understands the circumvolutions in the approaches of Inden or Pollock,
still reliant on these particularistic interpretations despite their concern to bring Ger-
man Indology back into an interpretative framework common to all Orientalists. The
relationship these approaches could establish between the “German instance” and the
general case was, at best, one of analogy, but in no way one of full identity. Yet this
hiatus may come from the fact that Germany’s interest in India has always been set
as a presupposition, an established fact and an accepted speci¿city. Hence, attention
is focused further on down the line – i. e. on the conclusions to be drawn concerning
Germany, its collective mentality and its history. It would be bene¿cial to look further
upstream, to give back the status of a historical event to Germany’s interest in India,
and to examine its motives.
It is patently obvious that, starting in the late 18th century, while Romanticism was
in full bloom, the idea of India as the cradle of civilisation gradually asserted itself
amongst German thinkers. This made it possible for Germany to go back to its own
origins and to provide solid foundations to a national German identity, which was
taking so long to surface. The rapid development of Indian references in Germany is
closely linked to how Romantic writers and philosophers used them in their nostalgic
quest for the origins of humanity in general and the German people in particular. As has
been regularly insisted upon, and as Sheldon Pollock and Annie Montaut bring to mind

16 For that matter, Franz Bopp himself ended up making this criticism to Fr. Schlegel, as we shall
see further on.
17 Montaut, p. 52–53.

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India, a German Passion? 21

again, this seeking of origins was the main driving force behind Fr. Schlegel interest in
Sanskrit, and it was at the heart of his book Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier
(1808). Not only did Schlegel mention, in his ¿rst lines, his conviction that there was
some intimate kinship between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German and Persian, but he also
had no qualms about setting up Sanskrit as the mother of all the other languages in the
family thus revealed. He mostly assigned to linguistic comparison (in which Sanskrit
had pride of place) a function that was to mark Indian studies in Germany for a long
time: “[to retrace] the most ancient history of the origin of peoples and their earliest
migrations.௘18” In the following decade, Franz Bopp systematically demonstrated the
existence of a family of Indo-European language – which, incidentally, had been per-
ceived since the 18th century. Even though he clearly stated that Sanskrit was a cousin
and not the mother language of German, in his research he pointed out the prospect
that a sole original language had given rise to all the languages of the Indo-European
family. This reinforced the feeling of a common belonging, according to an equation
that tended to identify language, thought and people.
India seen as a mirror of a Germany seeking its self-identi¿cation: there is some
truth in this metaphor, yet it also has its limits. In reducing Germany’s interest in India
to something on the order of “fascination”, it impedes a true historical analysis of
the phenomena and ultimately reÀects an irrationalistic argument. Furthermore, this
image should be handled with caution because it conveys the idea that, in a cognitive
approach, any player aiming to perceive and understand the “Other” necessarily proj-
ects his own expectations and fantasies on whomever or whatever he is confronted
with. Above all, one should beware of its unifying aspects. The Germans were not all
driven by the same quest for identity, and India was not a priori a determined entity, a
homogenous ensemble that had played a purely passive role in the emerging process
of Indian tropism in Germany.௘19 It remains dif¿cult to carry out an analysis concerning
two entities de¿ned by geographical, cultural, political or linguistic frontiers without
taking into account each one’s national characters as pre-set and ¿nal ensembles, or
without lapsing into teleology.
This is the reason why it is interesting to study in detail the history of Indology
in Germany. This examination should follow the stages of its implementation and

18 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier. Ein Beitrag zur Begründung der Alter-
thumskunde von Friedrich Schlegel. Nebst metrischen Uebersetzungen indischer Gedichte, Hei-
delberg 1808, repr. London 1995, p. 5
19 Ch. Malamoud, Critique et critique de la critique de l’orientalisme, in: C. Gyss-Vermande (ed.),
Livre blanc de l’orientalisme français, Paris 1993, p. 87–91. Malamoud underlines that Indolo-
gists developed their knowledge by integrating elements drawn from the indigenous science of
text and grammar exegesis. He also brings to mind that the works of Western Indologists have
enabled the Indians, themselves active in this process, to re-appropriate a forgotten part of their
literary heritage. Lastly, although the West is haunted by “the rough, fantasy notion – always ready
to express itself – of some homogenous Orient, uniformly different from Europe”, the work of
Orientalists “gives us the means to ¿ght against it” and therefore encourages us to do justice to
the complex reality of the East.

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22 Introduction

reconstruct its developments during the key period of the 19th century. Admittedly,
the academic discipline only makes up one of the two facets of the intellectual area
involved with India as an object of interest, knowledge and representation in Germany
at that time. The other facet is the “enthusiasts”, people who could be remarkably
informed on the subject, yet for whom India was not a specialty but a catalyst (for
novels, philosophical essays, esoteric thought, works of art, psychoanalytic theories
etc.). Furthermore, these two aspects cannot be fully watertight. Just as the works
of the Sanskritists have inspired many literary or philosophical works, the impulse
towards scienti¿c research has often come from some reference that already vaguely
existed within the population, or from the transmission of new information via some-
one outside the ¿eld of specialisation. This was precisely the case in the early days of
Orientalism, when armchair philologists were still widely dependent on accounts and
manuscripts, for example those brought back by travellers and missionaries.
Without denying this relative interaction, several statements nevertheless point out
that it would be useful to concentrate on the academic aspect of Germany’s interest in
India. The achievements of the Indological scholars made up a reservoir of references
for non-specialists. This counterbalances the widespread idea that Indology, practiced
by a small (both in number and quality) segment of the population, would be less
indicative of the Germans’ interest in India than literary or philosophical works are.
Furthermore, its academic form lends itself particularly well to analysis. As it took on
a scienti¿c shape and formed itself into a discipline, the interest in India necessarily
underwent a number of crystallisations: the de¿nition of the limits of the research
subject, the consensus on a methodology, and references or working tools. All these
elements make up a basis for historical investigation. The process of turning knowl-
edge into a discipline inevitably goes along with a tendency towards specialisation. It
also corresponds to a logic of epistemological and institutional delimitation vis-à-vis
pre-existing disciplines. Therefore, to identify the reasons for Germany’s interest in
India is also to understand how it took shape, and in which academic, cultural and po-
litical context it came into being. The various forms of discourse produced by this dis-
cipline – scienti¿c works, reports, inaugural speeches, prefaces and letter exchanges –
are little known. They deserve to be unearthed, because this was where Indologists
commented on their work and on this discipline’s situation, as well as the conditions
of its practice.
Historiography has revealed the crucial role of Friedrich Schlegel and Franz Bopp’s
works in the growth of the German interest in India. Nevertheless the ways in which
Indology itself developed have been little examined. There exist various historical di-
rectories compiled for the purpose of emphasizing the importance of the cultural links
between India and Germany,௘20 as well as works on Indological teaching in a speci¿c

20 Notably W. Nölle, Germany, Veda’s Second Home, New Delhi 1965; G. D. Sontheimer/H. von
Stietencron, German Indology, Past and Present, Bombay 1969; V. Stache-Rosen, German Indolo-
gists. Biographies of Scholars in Indian Studies Writing in German. With a Summary of Indology
in German Speaking Countries, 2nd ed., New Delhi 1990.

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India, a German Passion? 23

university or region.௘21 Some actors in this ¿eld contributed syntheses endeavouring

to give a more global vision of Indology in Germany, yet this was mainly in the 19th
century and in an internalist perspective. They did not take into account the cultural
and political contexts, nor did they consider the institutional aspect of this question.௘22
In the light of the dramatic ideological interpretations bred by concepts that arose
within the framework of Indological studies and Indo-European comparativism, the
matter of the project related to these disciplines, as well as its conditions of possibil-
ity, demand to be examined with the strictest rigour. Of course, this is not to say that
the retrospective and determinist readings of German history should be taken up once
more. Nor does it mean rehabilitating German Indologists by exempting them from
their own temptations to claim a national identity and give in to particularism – these
are manifest in the term “Indo-Germanic” substituted for “Indo-European”. The idea
is to analyse, in the light of the institutional and discursive data, how an academic
discipline was constructed.
The core of the questioning is the link from Indological philology to anthropology.
In the discriminating, lethal uses that have been made of the terms “Aryan” and “Indo-
Germanic”, what is at stake is indeed the collusion of linguistic and racial typologies.
Linguistic comparativism, especially at the beginning, aimed to establish the kinship
uniting different languages, and to mark out the boundaries of the linguistic family thus
reconstructed. Elaborated on the Indo-European group, this method resulted in chal-
lenging the Biblical genealogy that had Hebrew as the primordial language. This was
done by demonstrating that the Indo-European family did not derive from the Semitic
family.௘23 Furthermore, the classi¿catory approach constituted a point in common be-
tween linguistic comparativism and anthropology, which was mainly concerned about
drawing up the typology and genealogy of human groups. While anthropologists based
themselves on physical criteria, some of them envisaged the already-established lin-
guistic classi¿cations as a decisive criterion to con¿rm or even guide the delimitation
of racial groups. Yet the time gap between the development of linguistic comparativism
(as early as the ¿rst decades of the 19th century) and that of physical anthropology (in
the second half of the 19th century) shows that one cannot prejudge the intentions of
linguistic comparativism actors. It also brings to mind that we are dealing with two
disciplines in the process of formation, whose still-unstable de¿nitions gave rise to

21 H. Brückner/K. Butzenberger et alii (ed.), Indienforschung im Zeitenwandel. Analysen und Doku-

mente zur Indologie und Religionswissenschaft in Tübingen, Tübingen 2003; Traditions, Results,
Tasks. Sanskrit Studies in the G. D. R. Part I: Reports, Berlin 1978.
22 Th. Benfey, Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und orientalischen Philologie in Deutschland seit
dem Anfange des 19. Jahrhunderts mit einem Rückblick auf die früheren Zeiten, Munich 1869,
2 vol.; E. Windisch, Geschichte der Sanskrit-Philologie und indischen Altertumskunde, Stras-
bourg 1917. This situation started to change with the successive publication of two books: D. T.
McGetchin/P. K. J. Park/D. SarDesai (ed.), Sanskrit and “Orientalism”. Indology and Comparative
Linguistics in Germany, 1750–1958, New Delhi 2004, and I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline.
State, University and Indology in Germany, 1821–1914, Heidelberg 2005.
23 M. Olender, Les Langues du paradis. Aryens et sémites, un couple providentiel, Paris 1994.

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24 Introduction

large debates on a European scale. If anthropology emerged and developed as a sci-

ence that classi¿es and studies humans as belonging to a racial group, it also presented
itself as a science of humans as members of a cultural community. At the turn of the
19th and 20th century, the contours of the “anthropological” discipline remained highly
controversial – providing that they have since been de¿nitely outlined.
Another element to be reÀected on is that Indology does not coincide with linguistic
comparativism. Of course, the link is very close; since Sanskrit provided the key to
the elaboration of comparative grammar, the latter remained associated with the Indo-
European ensemble all along the 19th century. Specialists in linguistic comparativism
almost exclusively came from among Indologists, and they all at least had advanced
training in comparative grammar. Yet comparative grammar (vergleichende Gramma-
tik) or comparative language science (vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft) – the termi-
nology had yet to be settled – explored the structures of Sanskrit, turning them into an
element of comparison in order to classify languages, examine the characteristics of
language or reconstruct a former linguistic state. Indology, for its part, was interested
in Sanskrit not so much for itself or for what it could teach about other languages, but
to gain access to the texts about the Indian tradition it gave rise to.௘24 Moreover, there
were diverse currents among discipline ensembles (comparative grammar and philol-
ogy); the Naturalist school, which envisaged language in a primordial fashion as the
product of the biological organs of its speakers, had representatives in both camps, and
especially in that of comparative grammar. Yet many scholars involved in the study of
Sanskrit were placed in a much more Humboldtian perspective; they insisted on the
idealistic aspect of language production and the link between language and culture.
They did not accept linguistic families being confused with racial groups characterised
by physical traits.
The link between Indological philology and anthropology does not necessarily
take on the aspect one would expect. When it is reduced to some kind of collusion be-
tween language and race classi¿cations, then the diversity of Indological philological
practice disappears. Not only is this lost but so is the variety of anthropological con-
cerns related to it: the philosophical-anthropological cogitation on the links between
languages and peoples, as well as physical anthropology, towards which the attitude
of Indologists should be assessed. Anthropology must not be envisaged solely as a
discipline that philologists and linguists are confronted with, but also, mainly, as an
attitude consubstantial with philological work. Based on the examination of the links
between language and people, philological research, from the end of the 18th century,
sometimes took on the shape of a true ethnographic investigation on ancient societies.
The currents that came about amidst classical philology – the “Science of Antiquity”
(Altertumskunde), as promoted by Friedrich August Wolf and then the “Philology of
Things” (Sachphilologie) developed by August Boeckh – used criticism and herme-
neutics to investigate the realia and the spirit of the culture that gave rise to the texts

24 Indologists also looked into other Indian traditions, notably Pali, Prakrit, and Dravidian, yet to a
lesser extent and somewhat belatedly in relation to the study of Sanskrit.

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India, a German Passion? 25

they examined. An unquestionable indication of the emergence of historicist thought,

which was to leave its mark on 19th-century Germany, texts came across as historical
sources making it possible to reconstruct an overall image of Antiquity. For the her-
meneutical approach not to be dependent on the contemporary situation of exegetes,
this implied total immersion in the Ancient world.
At the time when the ¿rst Germans started to learn Sanskrit in Europe, in the early
19th century, a series of university reforms were underway in Prussia, under the aegis
of the erudite statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt. These reforms were then gradu-
ally carried out in other Germans states. Guided by his neo-humanist view, which
consisted in envisaging the formation of individuals as the well-balanced blooming
of their faculties, Humboldt considered that a central role should be devoted to the
study of Ancient Greek culture, since in his eyes it was the best example of humanity
developing harmoniously. The reform of Prussian university therefore gave pride of
place to Greek philology, which became a pre-requisite for having access to higher
education and a paragon of scienti¿city for the remaining philological disciplines.
Indologists who were endeavouring to make room for their subject at university now
had to integrate the norms of classical philology. So one understands even better how
the ethnographic approach was echoed in their works. The hegemony of classical phi-
lology also accounts for the fact that while, at the time, the Great Mughals ruled over
Northern India where they had developed Muslim culture, the attention of Indologists
was mainly focused on Ancient India, Sanskrit and Brahmanical culture. For all that,
classical philologists kept on displaying their disdain for this area located outside of
traditional humanism. Yet Indology could no more easily ¿nd its place within tradi-
tional Orientalism, because in Germany it remained mainly related to theology and
Bible exegesis. Furthermore, as compared with other Oriental languages, what made
Sanskrit studies more marginal was that linguistic comparativism related Sanskrit to
European languages. In such conditions, establishing where to af¿liate Indology, both
epistemologically and institutionally, implied that an issue of anthropological nature
should be resolved beforehand, i. e. ¿rstly to determine India’s place among civilisa-
tions, so that it could then be assigned a place in the academic order.
Such objective dif¿culties put into perspective the description which had these new
scienti¿c domains – Sanskrit studies and linguistic comparativism – self-evidently
taking form, upheld by unanimous enthusiasm. They also lead one to think that the
status of comparativism, vis-à-vis Indology, is far from being simple. If the revela-
tion of an Indo-European linguistic family marginalised Sanskrit in relation to other
Oriental languages, it could provide Indologists with a weighty argument to demon-
strate that India might not have been that far from the sphere of humanities. However,
inasmuch as the primacy allotted to the Hellenic world was linked to the supposedly
exemplary character of Greek civilisation, the argument of a linguistic bond could only
be valid if it were transposable on a cultural level. Hence the importance of identify-
ing the de¿nition which Indologists gave of language and of how they conveyed the
linguistic belonging of Sanskrit to the Indo-European ensemble, within the cultural
domain. Generally speaking, the question is whether the theme of comparativism was

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26 Introduction

federative enough to impose Indology as a discipline. All Indologists did not envisage
connecting Sanskrit studies to linguistic comparativism in the same fashion, and for a
long time comparative grammar generated resistance amongst the representatives of
classical and Orientalist philology.
Vedic studies provide a privileged ¿eld for analysing the modalities and functions
of the use of comparativism in Indological philology. The most ancient sacred texts
of Indian Antiquity, the Vedas were written throughout more than a thousand years
starting in the mid-second millennium B. C., by “Aryan” (as they call themselves in
these texts), Sanskrit-speaking tribes who had gradually arrived in the subcontinent.
In both quantity and quality, Vedic studies, ever since they came about in the 1840s,
appeared as the Àagship of German Indology. Their prestige was not only associated
with the hermetic character of these texts – the Vedas were often cryptically written,
in an archaic version of Sanskrit – but also with their excellent state of preservation,
considering that they dated back to very Early Antiquity. Indeed, as soon as they were
composed the Vedas were passed on orally from one generation to the next, by means
of highly sophisticated mnemonic procedures. Therefore, they yielded an unhoped-
for source for obtaining knowledge of India’s furthest past. They were also the most
ancient documents ever written in an Indo-European language. Consequently, German
Indologists’ works about Vedism are especially be¿tting to provide indications as to
the nature of the anthropological project(s) related to the junction between Indology
and comparativism.
The most ancient, most sacred and most obscure text of the Vedic corpus, the
‫ۿ‬gveda, a collection of religious hymns in verse, was the heart and the crowning
achievement of Indological studies, and it was considered as an invaluable source to
acquire the knowledge of original forms of religion. If at the time it was even referred
to as the “Aryan Bible”, it remains necessary to examine more precisely what expecta-
tions were put into its exegesis for the comprehension of Indo-European civilisation.
This is an ideal opportunity to observe the passage from linguistic comparativism to
comparativism aiming to shed light upon such cultural phenomena as mythology and
religion, as well as how the comparatist paradigm nurtured the anthropological dimen-
sion inherent to philological work.
With Vedic studies, the comparatist paradigm and even the large number of chairs
devoted to Indology, one can see the surfacing of a number of characteristics of what
some people, starting in the 19th century, called a “German school” of Indology. Yet
this should be understood in the sense that any national scienti¿c tradition, far from
being a “given”, always results from some construction. Whether it be about conveying
doxa in lectures, structuring knowledge into disciplines or practicing speci¿c exercises,
education systems produce cognitive structures that vary in different countries objec-
tively. Even on a subjective level, the way in which the players themselves perceive
their own practice as national should be taken seriously. Indeed, it has a performative
function, whether people try and make this perception coincide with facts or – if it is
negative – try and adjust facts so as to make it obsolete. In the 19th century, in a con-
text of growing international scienti¿c competitiveness, the need to identify national

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India, a German Passion? 27

“schools” of thought could be a way to de¿ne each country’s strengths and weaknesses.
In this matter, the position adopted by the Indologist and historian Wilhelm Halbfass
is of interest. ReÀecting on the degree of speci¿city of German Indology – notably as
an answer to the attempts at applying the theories of Orientalism to the “German in-
stance” – Halbfass encouraged his readers to evaluate the phenomenon of Indian stud-
ies in Germany in a more moderate fashion.௘25 One should not overestimate the number
of students – all in all it remained limited – nor the speci¿city of German Indology.
The idea was probably promoted outside of Germany that the Germans were markedly
more benevolent towards India than were the people from other Western countries. The
speci¿city of their relation to India probably pertained more to the British, who were
apparently very isolated in their blatant despise of Indian culture at a time when most
Western countries were conscious of its worth. This shows how important it is to get
away from essentialist and particularist de¿nitions.
“What a large ¿eld opens up to European ingenuity! The crop is so rich the risk
is the lack of harvesters,”௘26 exclaimed August Wilhelm Schlegel in the early 1830s
to his British colleagues. He wanted to mobilise forces internationally in order to do
the spadework on the huge, almost pristine ¿eld of Indian studies. National scienti¿c
traditions developed, constantly intertwining. Throughout the 19th century, German
Indologists were continuously in contact with those abroad: since its early days, their
discipline was nurtured on the works by members of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta
and the collections of Indian manuscripts from the Imperial Library in Paris. Later on
in the century, Germans occupied most of the chairs of Indology in Great Britain; they
also headed schools in India and supervised manuscript-collecting campaigns launched
by the British government. It would be unrealistic to consider German Indology in-
dependently from this interweaving with the achievements of other countries in the
same ¿eld: this could only lead to assigning to its practice speci¿cities which, upon
examination, would show that they were shared by Indologists in other countries, or
even that they directly stemmed from them. Such phenomena of interweaving equally
forbid one to consider German Indology in isolation and to keep to the comparative
approach, as this would draw analysis towards contrastive logics, thus missing this
science’s international dynamics. Taking note of scienti¿c transfers from one national
space to another means not so much trying to evaluate the faithfulness to the original
material, method or knowledge. It rather means analysing the function assigned to the
object transferred in the intellectual context of the host country. Indeed, the issue is
envisaging the speci¿city of German Indology not in the sense of some irreducible
singularity but in the sense of a national tradition constructed in interaction with other,
equally speci¿c foreign traditions.

25 W. Halbfass, Special Comments in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, op. cit., p. 237–244. In the same
vein, see E. Franco/K. Preisendanz (ed.), Beyond Orientalism. The Work of Wilhelm Halbfass
and its Impact on India and Cross-Cultural Studies, Amsterdam௘/Atlanta 1997.
26 A. W. Schlegel, RéÀexions, p. 97.

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For the ¿rst time in the history of humanity, the writ-
ings deciphered by Orientalists turned the earth into a
whole. A new sense of the word man started with the
foundation of orientalism. […] The arrival of Anquetil
Duperron in India in 1754 and that of William Jones in
1783 were minimal events on the face of it; yet start-
ing from these occurrences, many bases for judgement
became something they had never been before. Sud-
denly, the partial humanism of the classics came to be
integral humanism, which now seems to us a product of
nature. Formerly Mediterranean, it now became world-
wide when the scienti¿c reading of Zend and Sanskrit
texts triggered that of countless unsuspected writings.
Raymond Schwab, Oriental Renaissance௘1

Starting in the early 19th century, a large number of scholars shared the feeling that the
discovery of Sanskrit by Europeans represented an intellectual disruption similar to the
one which, three centuries earlier, was caused by the rediscovery of Greek and Latin
culture and texts. Taken over and popularised by the French writer Raymond Schwab,
the notion of an “Oriental Renaissance”௘2 at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries,
reÀects the large-scale phenomenon encompassing the deciphering of more and more
writings, both cuneiform and hieroglyphic,௘3 among which Sanskrit was supposed to
be the prominent part and driving force. With this language, an Orient really different
from the traditional Hebrew and Arab worlds revealed itself to European consciences.
Pushing back the borders of the known world, Indian tradition confronted Europe with
an Antiquity that seemed much more ancient than the most far-off times evoked in
the Old Testament. But above all, in comparison with China, Egypt or Assyria, India
provided the only case of an ancient tradition outside of Judeo-Christianity that had

1 R. Schwab, La Renaissance orientale […], Paris 1950, p. 13.

2 Ibid., p. 18–28.
3 Egyptology rapidly expanded at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, in the context of Napo-
leon’s expedition to Egypt; Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs in 1822 (Lettre à M. Dacier
relative à l’alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques). This period was also marked by numerous
debates between scholars about the cuneiform writings found in Persia.

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30 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

remained alive until contemporary times. Beyond the matter of delineating the Orient,
India led to a confrontation with the origins of human history. Perceived as bearing wit-
ness to the dawn of humanity, the Sanskrit tradition, in its extreme elaboration, showed
that the primitive world was not the world of simplicity described by Rousseau; it also
suggested that if Europeans con¿ned themselves to their classical horizon, they could
never fully resolve the issue of their origins.
Schwab nevertheless admits that there cannot be total analogy between classical
Renaissance and “Oriental Renaissance”. All in all, unearthing Greek texts only sent
one back to a tradition with which ties were never really broken, whereas in the case
of Sanskrit, an unsuspected world revealed itself to Europe. To him, far from mak-
ing them irreducible from one another, these differences made the two Renaissances
complementary stages of the same process: while “the ¿rst Renaissance sends us back
to something known in order to know it even better, the second one calls out to us,
as though it were placing us back in front of another version of ourselves; something
unknown seizes us in order to make us revisit something known.” An unhoped-for op-
portunity to complete what the ¿rst Renaissance had left un¿nished, “the incorporation
[of Sanskrit culture] into the humanistic heritage”௘4 was supposedly self-evident. Yet
isn’t this an optimistic view of things? Certainly, on a philosophical level there is no
doubt that India appeared as a source from which to draw information on the past of
humanity as well as a cure for the ills of the modern days. Yet since the idea was to give
substance to this project and to install the study of ancient India as scienti¿c discourse,
the question necessarily took on another turn: in universities governed by a form of
neo-humanism that substantiated the hegemony of Greek studies, great efforts would
be needed to manage establishing Sanskrit alongside classical and Biblical philology
and enforcing the acceptance of a wider meaning of humanism.
In a way, as claimed by the German pioneers of Sanskrit studies, starting with
Friedrich Schlegel, the label “Second Renaissance” was in itself a handicap. Indeed,
it explicitly stated the position of rivalry and even revenge in which they placed them-
selves vis-à-vis this classical Renaissance that had enabled the Latin world to renew
with its origins. The long-lasting victory of the term “Indo-Germanic” (indogerma-
nisch) over “Indo-European” (indoeuropäisch) reveals the temptation to place the
“Oriental Renaissance” at the service of the German particularism cause; this goal is
quite remote from the universalism traditionally attached to humanism. In becoming
an important element of historical consideration on languages and peoples, India com-
peted with Greece and Judea. The issue was clearly the compatibility of the intellectual
and philosophical project related to the study of ancient India, along with the traditional
way to approach the question of the origins of humanity and human culture – in other
words, not only the possibility to link up these two perspectives, but also the extent of
the breach induced by the discovery of an Indo-European past.

4 Schwab, p. 495 and p. 16.

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A Sanskrit Revolution?

Scienti¿c Discovery: between Rupture and Continuity

Buoyed by a bond of analogy with classical Renaissance, the idea of an “Oriental Re-
naissance” nevertheless conveys the representation of a mutation vis-à-vis a previous
order. From the standpoint of linguistic history this disruption has often been described
as a true revolution; this has much to do with the fact that the discovery of Sanskrit at
once made possible the creation of a new science: comparative grammar. With Franz
Bopp’s Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache (Conjugation System of the Sanskrit
Language) in 1816, a sudden and radical change of paradigm is said to have taken
place. The genealogy of comparative grammar was barely extended to encompass the
speech held in Calcutta by William Jones in 1786, on the similarity between Sanskrit
and classical languages, as well as Friedrich Schlegel’s Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit
der Indier, dating from 1808. As was the case with Jones’ work, Schlegel’s undertaking
has been valued mainly for his intuition of the importance of Sanskrit and the existence
of tangible links between classical languages and Sanskrit. It is generally emphasized
that these were heralding Bopp’s work; yet from the methodological point of view, it
is thought that the Conjugationssystem represented a rupture with the era of “precur-
sors”, opening up that of the “modern” science of language.
Starting in the ¿rst decades of the 19th century, German Sanskritists retraced the
heroic history of their discipline and emphasized the revolutionary role of Franz Bopp.
In his Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und orientalischen Philologie in Deutsch-
land, Theodor Benfey saluted him for having “elaborated the new science of language
on the bases of Sanskrit, and carried it to a high degree of development.”௘1 Based on a
vision of science in which the notion of “progress” plays a central role, 19th century
historiographic undertakings envisaged the history of sciences as an upward move-
ment: science irresistibly progresses towards its goal, which is to reach absolute truth
in a given domain.௘2 Each knowledge item is de¿nitively acquired, and the emergence
of new knowledge completes rather than threatens it. The rupture is not perceived as
calling former practices into question, but rather as the indication of the emergence of
an additional science. This way, Bopp can be reinforced in his “founding father” role,

1 Benfey, Geschichte, b. II, p. 381.

2 P. Schmitter, Historiographie und Narration. Metahistoriographische Aspekte der Wissenschafts-
geschichtsschreibung der Linguistik, Seoul/Tübingen 2003, p. 123 on.

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32 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

even more so since his works are viewed as the basis that have enabled the continuous,
progressive development of all later practices in the same ¿eld.
In the 20th century, linguistic historiographs tended to have Bopp take on, once
again, the role of the father of comparative grammar. In 1916, a series of publications
devoted to the history of this science was entitled “History of Indo-Germanic Lin-
guistics since its Foundation by Franz Bopp.௘3” In 1969, while constructing the history
of the intellectual relationships between India and Germany, Walter Leifer asserted
once again: “the comparative science of language, and consequently Indo-Germanic
linguistics, consider Bopp as their spiritual father.௘4” Yet here, depicting the discovery
of Sanskrit in terms of “revolution” totally falls within the scope of a ‘discontinuistic’
conception of the history of sciences; and this conception was clearly elaborated in
opposition to the 19th century faith – deemed as naïve – in the continuous progress of
science. To the notion of a cumulative effect of knowledge is substituted that of a sci-
ence that mainly advances through reversing dominant paradigms at a given time – an
inversion bene¿ting new paradigms that take place whenever the science in question
enters a crisis.௘5 Viewed from this conception of the history of sciences, Bopp’s Con-
jugationssystem appears as a change of paradigm made necessary by the anomaly that
the newly-discovered Sanskrit language represented in relation to pre-existing cogni-
tive schemas. Yet applying Kuhn’s concept of “revolution” – initially reserved for exact
sciences – to the history of linguistics raises a problem of legitimacy. E. F. K. Koerner
thus calls to mind that while Bopp did everything he could to promote his book –
even translating it into English in 1819 – neither the German original nor the English
translation were reviewed in the journals of the time, other than an account written by
Bopp himself.௘6 As for this book’s “revolutionary” effect and founding value, another
relativising factor is that it came out at the same period as the works by Fr. Schlegel,
Jacob Grimm and the Dane Rasmus Rask; this makes it dif¿cult to date the beginning
of comparative grammar.௘7 For that matter, Bopp’s work is far from having founded
the Indo-European “paradigm” with all its components, since it did not combine the
comparative dimension with either a historical or a typological approach.௘8

3 W. Streitberg, Grundriss der indogermanischen Sprach- und Altertumskunde, Bd. 2: Die Er-
forschung der indogermanischen Sprachen, Strasbourg 1916 [Geschichte der indogermanischen
Sprachwissenschaft seit ihrer Begründung durch Franz Bopp, b. II, 1].
4 Leifer, p. 150.
5 According to the Kuhnian model: T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scienti¿c Revolutions, Chicago
1962, chap. 5 & 6.
6 According to E. F. K. Koerner, it was only in the 1960s that the term “revolution” started to be
applied to the history of language sciences, ¿rst by journalists then by historians – to be speci¿c,
it was used to characterise Chomsky’s work: E. F. K. Koerner, The concept of “revolution” in
linguistics. Historical, methodological and philosophical issues, in: Linguistic Historiography,
Projects and Prospects, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 1999, p. 85–96.
7 Ibid., p. 85–89.
8 A question which is still much debated concerns the continuity or rupture between comparative
grammar and the general grammar that had been practiced in France since the late 18th century –
notably by Volney, who was in contact with many German scholars and kept himself closely

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 33

The discontinuitist approach is therefore jeopardised. There remains the question

that concerns the possibility of considering progress in the history of science. Admit-
tedly, the 19th century teleological optimism that conveyed the notion of an objec-
tive ful¿lment of progress in history is untenable; yet if considered from a subjective
standpoint, with progress apprehended as intentionality, then it could become an op-
erating concept. For it is, indeed, faith in “progress” that enables scienti¿c actors to
retain the feeling that their scienti¿c activity really helps them to approach truth and
therefore is not totally void of sense.௘9 If one admits that the knowledge accumulated
in the course of time is not of a nature of absolute certitude, that its worth is relative
and only effective in relation to the speci¿c questioning modes of a given period, then
whether or not the discovery of Sanskrit was an intellectual revolution at the dawn of
the 19th century matters less than the fact that is was perceived as such. As Augustine
Brannigan remarks, discoveries “are not simply objective, but they are objecti¿ed facts.
In an uncanny and involuntary way, they are constantly undergoing a retrospective
and prospective interpretation.”௘10 Texts considered as “founding”, such as Schlegel’s
Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier and especially Bopp’s Conjugationssystem,
are not necessarily so in the sense that they contain, in embryo, their own posterity;
they can rather become reference texts for those who will take their inspiration from
them a posteriori. It is therefore necessary to go back to the pre-history of Indology
in Germany so that the following matters are better de¿ned, according to the context:
objectively innovative elements which were put into place at the time and were most
often reformulations of former problems; the fact that the feeling of novelty could have
been prompted by the way in which the “pioneers” of Indology expressed themselves
on their own work; the mechanisms that enabled Sanskrit to enter the conscience of
Europeans precisely at the turn between the 18th and 19th centuries.
This question is complex, since attempts at constructing a genealogy of German
Indology take us back to a time when it did not yet exist as an institutionalised disci-
pline. When trying to identify what can connect the projects of Jones, Schlegel and
Bopp, one is faced with their singularity, since they have yet to be submitted to a com-
mon model. In going back to these authors, historiography deliberately emphasises the
link between Sanskrit studies and comparativism. Does this mean that the true nov-
elty brought about by Sanskrit was what it had to teach Europeans about themselves?
Furthermore, did the various scholars versed in Sanskrit understand this lesson in the
same fashion?

informed about scienti¿c advances in Germany. See H. Aarsleff, Guillaume de Humboldt et la

pensée linguistique des idéologues, in: A. Joly/J. Stefanini (ed.), La Grammaire générale: des
modistes aux idéologues, Lille 1977, p. 217–241. Nevertheless, one of the arguments put forward
to substantiate the idea of a rupture consists in showing that Wilhelm von Humboldt’s thought
was totally foreign to 18th century sensualism.
9 Schmitter, Historiographie und Narration, p. 128 on.
10 A. Brannigan, The Social Basis of Scienti¿c Discoveries, Cambridge/London/New York 1981,
p. 142.

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34 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

From India to Europe, the Formation of Knowledge about Sanskrit

A Long-standing Curiosity towards India

The existence of the Indian subcontinent had been in the European conscience since
antiquity. With the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s extension into this region during the
reign of Darius 1st, knowledge of its existence spread amongst the Greeks, as can be
seen in the writings of Herodotus and Ctesias. Information on India became more pre-
cise with the expedition led between 327 and 352 B. C. by Alexander’s troops, which
reached the Indus River. This provided a wealth of descriptions of the strangest and
most marvellous phenomena.௘11 Contacts between India and Europe enjoyed renewed
importance during the Roman Empire, thanks to trade exchanges via Egypt. Later on
they became scarce, so that in the early Middle Ages the only available information on
India was either dating back to antiquity, having undergone a number of distortions, or
brought back by the few traders and travellers who still sojourned there.
Starting in the 13th century and the era of great travellers, the “peninsula beyond
the Ganges” enjoyed little interest, and it mainly concerned geography, politics and
trade – less so religion and Indian culture, victimized by fantastical portrayals. In the
latest years of the 15th century, the settling of the Portuguese in India gave Europeans
an opportunity to gain better knowledge of the country. As happened elsewhere in the
world, the developing Lusitanian colonialism went along with setting up Catholic mis-
sions, especially Jesuit, and this entailed closer contact with the inhabitants and their
culture. At ¿rst, the interest of Europeans was primarily to save the Indian people from
their paganism, so they baptised them en masse. Minds were then mobilised by the
rediscovery of Greek and Latin antiquity, to the detriment of India. Nevertheless, over
the century there came about the notion that traces of the primitive revelation could be
observed amongst all the peoples of the earth; this justi¿ed examining Indian beliefs
more deeply, in order to test their concordance points with the Christian doctrine.௘12
In the 17th century, this curiosity gave rise to thorough attempts at gaining knowl-
edge of Indian religion and, with this aim in view, at appropriating Indian languages.
The Italian Jesuit Roberto de Nobili௘13 was the ¿rst European to learn Indian languages,
in order to get acquainted with the religion of the people he intended to convert. He
took advantage of his mastery of Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit to read the texts of the
Indian tradition and better grasp their religious rituals. In the 17th and 18th centuries,
missionaries made other attempts at gaining mastery of Indian languages, both ver-
nacular and Sanskrit. Since their missions were set up in the southern part of the pen-
insula, the vernacular languages that they learnt invariably belonged to the Dravidian
domain, yet they were not aware of it. The presence of many Sanskrit terms led them

11 J. Filliozat, Deux cents ans d’indianisme – critiques des méthodes et des résultats, Bulletin de
l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient LXXVI, 1987, p. 87–89.
12 Ibid., p. 93–94.
13 Father Nobili, a young Jesuit who was the nephew of the Vatican’s librarian, arrived as a mission-
ary to Madurai, in Southern India, in 1605–1606.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 35

to believe that these languages were related to Sanskrit, which they also studied. In
1660, the Jesuit father Heinrich Roth put together a grammar that reached Europe in
1664.௘14 Generally speaking, the information sent back to the old continent gave rise to
translations in the various European countries: a good indication of the growing inter-
est in India. A book by a tradesman named Abraham Roger was published in Leyde in
1651 under the title De Open Deure tot het verborgen Heydendom: for the ¿rst time,
an excerpt of Sanskrit literature was made available to European readers. It was ¿rst
published in Dutch and then translated into German and French.௘15
The structure of the missionary world encouraged the international circulation of
knowledge. During the 17th century, as a result of the victory of the English Àeet
against the Spanish Armada and the Dutch conquest of many Portuguese posts in
India, the Catholic missionary presence gradually lost its dynamism. Protestants had
considered missionary activity as illegitimate for a long time, but spurred by the Pi-
etists of Halle, they started to look at it from another angle. In 1706, the German Bar-
tholomaeus Ziegenbalg established the Pietist mission of Tranquebar, in India, upon
request of King Frederick IV of Denmark. Thanks to subsidies granted by the English
missionary society De promovenda cognitione Christi, it was equipped with a print-
ing workshop. Despite these accomplishments, the memoirs on the religious Southern
Indian rites and customs written by Ziegenbalg remained as manuscripts for about
two centuries௘16 because the missionary authorities feared the propagation of Hinduism
in Europe. Only his works on languages enjoyed better fate: his Tamil grammar was
published in Halle as early as 1716.
Just as the rapid development of Protestant mission should not make one forget
what had been achieved by the Jesuit missionaries remaining in India in the ¿rst half
of the 18th century,௘17 the progress in the knowledge of modern India and its vernacular
languages should not overshadow the works carried out by some missionaries in the
domain of Sanskrit. At that time, three French Jesuits, the fathers Jean Calmette, Jean-
François Pons and Gaston Cœurdoux, won fame for their familiarity with the Sanskrit

14 Within the framework of his lectures on the history of Indian studies at the Ecole Pratique des
Hautes Etudes, in 2004, Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat devoted a conference (January 12, 2004) to the
work of Father Roth, whose Sanskrit grammar he considers as one of the best ever written. The
manuscript of this grammar was only revealed in 1988. The lecture report was published in the
Livret Annuaire, no 19 (2003–2004) of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, p. 406–408.
15 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 2–3. It is the Dutch translation of maxims from the poet Bhart৚hari.
German translation by Christoph Arnold (Abraham Rogers Offne Thür zu dem verborgenen
Heydenthum, Nuremberg 1663); French translation by Thomas La Grue (La porte ouverte, pour
parvenir à la connoissance du paganisme caché, Amsterdam 1670).
16 Genealogie der Malabarischen Götter (Madras 1867) and Malabarisches Heidenthum (Amster-
dam 1926).
17 In 1704, the dispute on rites led to prohibiting the adaptation of Catholic religious practices to
the Indian context; this papal ban became ¿nal in 1744 and it resulted in the dissolution of the
Jesuit order in India in 1759. See H. Obst, Missionsberichte aus Indien im 18. Jahrhundert: eine
Einführung in den missionsgeschichtlichen Kontext, in: Bergunder (ed.), Missionsberichte, p. 1–5.
The Jesuits were back in India after 1830.

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36 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

language and literature, which they made sure to spread in Europe. To that purpose,
they could rely on instruments of periodical circulation, both denominational, such as
the Lettres édi¿antes et curieuses published by the Jesuits, and secular, such as the
Mémoires de littérature de l’Académie. Father Pons also wrote a Sanskrit grammar
(1733), which he had sent to the Royal Library along with a large number of manu-
scripts.௘18 This type of sources was to prove precious to the French and also German
Orientalists in the early 19th century.
If missionaries generally worked in isolation, their knowledge was nevertheless
growing in precision. Furthermore, in such Protestant missions as the one in Tharan-
gambadi, a philological activity started to take shape, as can be seen from the setting up
of a printing shop and the persistency of linguistic concerns. This became even more
true at the very end of the century, with the arrival in Bengal of the British Baptist
missionary William Carey in 1793, and the establishment of the Serampore mission,
which was immediately equipped with a printing shop. Starting in the late 18th century,
the European presence in India, which was already ensured by missionaries, traders
and adventurers, was enlarged with travellers visiting India for scienti¿c purposes.௘19

In the Beginning, the French and the English

The most renowned ¿gure, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron, travelled to India
not only to collect data in various areas (geography, mores, architecture etc), but also,
mainly, to seek, on the ¿eld, the sacred books of the Persians and Indians, as then little
known in Europe.௘20 Familiarised with the languages and religions of the Orient during
his education in Jansenist seminaries in France (Auxerre) and then Holland, Anquetil
Duperron nurtured a two-fold dream. He wanted to deepen knowledge on the history
of ancient peoples by revealing their text traditions. He also sought to discover human
nature, and for that he wanted to meet men from ‘primitive’ countries, not corrupted
by civilisation. This project therefore places his approach at the dividing line between
the perspective of historical criticism, as promoted by the Enlightenment, and the quest
for origins, which was to be at the heart of Romanticism.௘21 What makes the Anquetil
Duperron case even more interesting is that his works were received by both British
and German scholars, and that he was in an intermediate position between amateur and

18 The lists drawn by Father Pons were published in the Catalogus manuscriptorum Bibliothecae
Regiae, codices orientales of 1739, on the initiative of Abbot Bignon, the Royal Library admin-
istrator. The catalogue compiles a list of 287 manuscripts for the Indian section alone.
19 Notably Voyage aux Indes Orientales et à la Chine (1774–1781) by Pierre Sonnerat, commis-
sioned by Louis XVI to collect information on India’s languages, arts, sciences, religion, natural
history and geography; his book was translated into German (Zurich 1783); see also Interesting
Historical Events, relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan࣠… (1765–1771)
by John Zephaniah Holwell, an East India Company employee.
20 P.-S. Filliozat, Introduction, in: J. Deloche/M. Filliozat/P.-S. Filliozat (ed.), A. H. Anquetil Duper-
ron, Voyage en Inde: relation de voyage en préliminaire à la traduction du “Zend-Avesta”, Paris
1997 [re-edition of the 1771 translation].
21 Halbfass, Indien und Europa: Perspektiven ihrer geistigen Begegnung, Basel 1981, p. 80.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 37

professional. It was indeed as an adventurer in search of coveted manuscripts that he set

off to India. In Gujarat, where there was a large Parsee community, he undertook the
study of the Avesta sacred books with the help of an Indian master, and he acquired a
full library of manuscripts. When he returned to Paris in 1762 after eight years in India,
he hastened to hand these over to the Royal Library, where he became the translator
in charge of Oriental manuscripts.
The return to Europe of a man so versed in various Indian languages was quite
signi¿cant in the professionalisation of Indology. Indeed, the materials sent by mis-
sionaries had until then been left unused on the back shelves of libraries, as European
scholars unavoidably deprived of the pandits’ help did not think they could understand
them. Moreover, Anquetil Duperron was very concerned with the circulation of the
knowledge he had acquired. His ¿rst great publication was a translation of the Zend-
Avesta in three volumes, in 1771. Starting in the 1780s, his published works became
more devoted to India itself. Going back to one of the concerns that had spurred him to
undertake his voyage, i. e. learning the Vedic corpus, he notably focused his effort on
the translation of the Vedic Upani‫܈‬ads, whose Persian version he had received from a
British colonel in 1775.௘22 This huge labour accomplished in very hard material condi-
tions௘23 led to the publication, in 1801, of a Latin translation in two volumes, entitled
Oupnek’hat (Id est, Secretum tegendum), which included many references to the works
of the missionaries that had preceded him.
That he had to translate from the Persian increases Duperron’s intermediate posi-
tion: it was anachronous not to master the Sanskrit language that some missionaries
already commanded, yet at the same time wanting to familiarise the European public
with Vedic texts was a pioneering approach. His works were de¿nitely acknowledged
in Germany, not only the Oupnek’hat, which was easily accessible to Germans because
it was translated into Latin, but also the Zend-Avesta, which gave rise to several transla-
tions into German; two were published in the same year (1776), one by Johann Georg
Purmann,௘24 the other by Johan Friedrich Kleuker,௘25 who also published, in 1781 and
in 1783, an Appendix (Anhang) to the Zend-Avesta. Moreover, Kleuker had the ¿rst

22 It was Colonel Gentil, who had put himself at the service of France. This Persian version of the
Sanskrit Upani‫܈‬ads is by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Highly
attracted to Su¿ mysticism, Dara Shikoh was interested in a possible syncretism between Islam
and Hinduism, and looking for elements of the Upani‫܈‬ads that would show traces of monotheism
in Hinduism.
23 Under the Revolution, Anquetil Duperron was dismissed from his post as an interpreter after he
refused to take an oath to the Republic. When the Terror started, after a brief sojourn in prison
he decided to retire from the world. He thus lived in renunciation for three years, fully devoting
himself to his work in Orientalism.
24 J. G. Purmann, Anquetil Du Perrons… Reisen nach Ostindien, nebst einer Beschreibung der bür-
gerlichen und Religionsgebräuche der Parsen, als eine Einleitung zum Zend-Avesta, dem Gesetz-
buch der Parsen durch Zoroaster, Frankfurt am Main 1776.
25 J. Fr. Kleuker, “Zend-Avesta”. Zoroasters lebendiges Wort, Riga 1776–1777. After studying phi-
lology, philosophy and law in Göttingen, Kleuker became private tutor in Bückeburg, where he
met Herder (1773), then Prorektor in Lemgo (1775) and Rektor in Osnabrück (1778).

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38 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

volume of the Zend-Avesta reprinted in 1786, and in 1789 he published an abbreviated

version, Zendavesta im Kleinen.
In Great Britain, the reception of Anquetil’s Zend-Avesta was more controversial.
In a pamphlet published the same year and entitled Lettre à Monsieur A*** du P***,
dans laquelle est compris l’examen de sa traduction des livres attribués à Zoroastre
(Letter to Mr A*** from P*** in which is comprised the examination of his translation
of books attributed to Zoroaster) (London 1771), William Jones virulently questioned
the authenticity of the translation. Although unfounded (Jones himself admitted it later
on), this dispute placed a long-lasting obstacle on the credibility of Anquetil’s works,
as Jones already enjoyed much authority in the matter of Orientalism, thanks to his
works on Persian and Arab philology.௘26 The Orient had become a knowledge issue and
the international circulation of information had an emulative role.௘27
Generally speaking, the Orientalists of the 18th century never limited themselves
to a single Oriental language. Whoever was interested in India had to learn Persian
because at that time it was taught in European countries, which was not the case with
Indian languages.௘28 Furthermore, the Mughal Emperors who had been ruling over
India for a few centuries used Persian as the language of the court and administration.
Yet, unlike Anquetil Duperron, Jones made the most of his career in India by learning
Sanskrit – although this was not his initial intention. On the boat taking him to India,
he had set up a vast study programme, which he intended to carry out during his stay:
Hindu and Muslim law, accounts of the Deluge, politics and geography, music, trade
etc.௘29 In the ¿rst months that followed his arrival, in order to carry out this programme
he applied himself to convincing the members of the British administration who spoke
Persian to create a learned society in order to promote Oriental studies.
This is how the Asiatic Society of Bengal (also known as ‘of Calcutta’) saw the
light of day on the 15th of January 1784. The ruling policy of the colonial authorities
and Governor Warren Hastings was to take into account the natives’ own legal cus-
toms, precisely recorded in texts written in Sanskrit.௘30 This is why Jones – preceded
by Charles Wilkins, another member of the Society – came to focus all his efforts on

26 He learnt these languages during his studies at Oxford, notably from a Syrian man he hired to that
sole purpose.
27 T. R. Trautmann, Aryans and British India, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1997, p. 32. On the
international dimension of Orientalism in the late 18th century, see P. Rabault, Réseaux inter-
nationaux de l’Orientalisme naissant. Le Magasin encyclopédique comme relais du savoir sur
l’Orient, in: G. Espagne/B. Savoy (ed.), Aubin-Louis Millin et l’Allemagne. Le Magasin encyclo-
pédique – Les lettres à Karl August Böttiger, Hildesheim/Zurich/New York 2005, p. 161–189.
28 At the Collège de France, for instance, the following languages were taught in the last quarter of
the 18th century: Arabic (chair established in 1587), Syriac (chair established in 1692), Turkish
and Persian (chair established in 1750; a chair speci¿cally devoted to Persian was to be created
in 1806, and held by Silvestre de Sacy).
29 O. P. Kejariwal, The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past 1784–1838, Delhi
1999, p. 29.
30 Hastings’ policy of safeguarding the Indian language and culture gave rise to strong criticism in Great-
Britain and forced him into resigning as early as 1785 (he had been Bengal’s Governor since 1773).

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 39

Sanskrit.௘31 Far from purely pragmatic motivations, the Society members were sincerely
interested in Indian culture, they truly admired its literary productions and they were
convinced that there existed a mythological, philosophical and religious tradition from
early antiquity in India. Thanks to the help of the pandits, they were soon able to pro-
vide translations of Indian literary works. As early as 1785, Charles Wilkins published
his translation of the Bhagavad-GƯtƗ, the long central poem of the great MahƗbhƗrata
epic. For the ¿rst time, the translation of a Sanskrit text was reaching Europe in its
entirety; it was soon made available in the national languages of France and Germany.௘32
Spurred on by Jones, Orientalist practice seemed to be nicely taking shape. For
instance, the coordination of efforts was already noticeable in the harmonising of
practices for the transcription of Indian terms into European languages.௘33 The most
important step was certainly taken in 1788, when the Society created its own publica-
tion organ, Asiatick (later Asiatic) Researches. While Jones had feared that it might not
be viable, it ¿nally met with great enthusiasm in Great Britain – where the ¿rst issues
were even pirated several times (1796, 1798, 1799) – as well as in other European
countries: the British scholars’ advance in the ¿eld of Sanskrit was indisputable and
perceived as such by foreign men of letters. In Germany, these Asiatic Researches were
translated as early as 1795, on the initiative of Friedrich Kleuker and Johann Christian
Fick. Translations appeared in France a few years later, notably undertaken by Antoine
Gilbert Griffet de Labaume.௘34
William Jones’ role in the rapid development of Indian studies was not limited to
the coordination and systematisation of research. He pursued ventures in the most vari-
ous domains, thus launching new avenues for research, which were to keep subsequent
scholars busy for decades. His translations of Sanskrit texts concerned classical theatre
(ĝakuntƗlƗ by KƗlidƗsa, in 1789) and medieval literature (Jayadeva’s GƯtƗ Govinda in
1792) as well as legal writings dating back to Indian antiquity (Manusm‫܀‬ti, the Laws of
Manu), translated under the title of Institutes of Hindu Law in 1794). Besides works on
the chronology of Indian history, he played a crucial role in the development of a com-
paratist viewpoint in Indian studies. This concerned both mythology – he showed that
it could be approached from the angle of the resemblance between Hindu, Greek and
Roman gods, although his mythological choices were not always very accurate – and

31 G. Cannon, Sir William Jones, Persian, Sanskrit and the Asiatic Society, Histoire, Epistémologie,
Langage 6/2, 1984, p. 88.
32 C. Wilkins, The Bhăgvăt-GƝetƗ or Dialogues of KrƟƟshna and Arjǂon, Bath/London 1785. The
French translation, by Abbott J. P. Parraud, dates from 1787, and the German one, by Friedrich
Majer, from 1801.
33 Kejariwal, p. 36.
34 J. Fr. Kleuker/J. C. Fick, Abhandlungen über die Geschichte und Alterthümer, die Künste, Wissen-
schaften und Literatur Asiens, Riga 1795, 3 vol., vol. IV: Das brahmanische Religionssystem
im Zusammenhange dargestellt und aus seinen Grundbegriffen erklärt, Riga 1797. A. G. Griffet
de Labaume, a poet and translator, translated volume I in 1803 and volume II in 1805. Another
translation was provided in 1804 by Louis-Matthieu Langlès (he was the administrator of the
Ecole spéciale des langues orientales vivantes from the time it was set up in 1795, and he taught
Persian and Malay there).

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40 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

the linguistic study of Sanskrit: in his famous 1786 lecture, which historiographers so
often quote, he drew attention to the similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and
Persian – an assertion that had been made by various scholars before him, notably
amongst missionaries.
However, the true novelty of his discourse was that he attributed these similarities
to a common origin and that he reached this conclusion by taking into account not only
lexical resemblances but also analogies in the grammatical structures of the languages
concerned.௘35 This method then enabled him to perceive the kinship between Sanskrit
and Persian, furthermore acknowledging that Persian and Arab did not belong to the
same family. He therefore managed to identify an “Indian” linguistic family in oppo-
sition to an “Arabic” linguistic family, thus anticipating the distinction between Indo-
European and Semitic languages.௘36 Yet beyond the modernity of his linguistic analysis,
in his mind Jones remained deeply reliant on his belief in the account of Genesis; as
did his predecessors before him, he was mainly trying to relate the world’s various
languages to Noah’s three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth. Misled by his comparison
method – which after all remained aleatory – he included Egyptian in the same group
as Sanskrit, Persian, Latin and Greek.௘37 This led him to think that, contrary to com-
mon opinion, the Greeks and Romans, like the Egyptians and Indians, were descended
from Ham and not Japheth. According to Jones, the Hamitic family would therefore
include all the great ancient civilisations and the Japhetic family would comprise
nomadic tribes, notably Tartar, while the Semitic family would encompass the Jews,
the Arabs, the Assyrians, the Syriac-speaking people and the Abyssinians. Yet beyond
this tripartition, he remained convinced of the original unity of mankind, with Persia
as the cradle of humanity. Monogenist theory naturally induced a single origin of lan-
guage: irreducible oppositions between the different linguistic families were no proof
that there was not a common original language, but rather that it was impossible to
reconstruct this particular language, the one that was spoken by Adam and Noah.௘38 In

35 This speech was later published in the ¿rst issue of Asiatic Researches: W. Jones, On the literature
of the Hindus, from the Sanskrit, communicated by Goverdhan Caul, with a short commentary,
Asiatic Researches I, 1788, p. 422–423. Yet William Jones made a few mistakes when he attrib-
uted linguistic families: for instance, he included the Javanese, Tibetan and Burmese languages
in the Indian family.
36 W. Jones, On the Arabs. Fourth discourse, Asiatic Researches II, 1790, p. 19–41; On the Persians.
Sixth discourse, ibid., 1790, p. 43–66.
37 At that time, hieroglyphs had yet to be deciphered. It was not until 1822 that Jean-François Cham-
pollion would translate them. Jones therefore based himself on the Coptic language, which derived
from Ancient Egyptian yet comprised many words borrowed from Greek – hence the illusion of
kinship between Egyptian and languages of the “Indian” group.
38 As to whether or not W. Jones’ comparatist approach showed “traces of comparative linguistics
in embryo”, see P. Desmet/P. Swiggers, The elaboration of comparative linguistics: comparison
and language typology until the early 19th century, in: P. Schmitter (ed.), Sprachtheorien der
Neuzeit II. Von der Grammaire de Port-Royal (1660) zur Konstitution moderner linguistischer
Disziplinen, Tübingen 1996, p. 122–177 (p. 141–143 concern this question).

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 41

every instance the matter of language families remained closely linked to that of the
genealogy of the peoples of humanity.
After Jones’ death in 1794, the Society was able to survive thanks to the presence
of such eminent members as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who went to India in 1783.
There he learned Persian, Arab and Sanskrit. Besides his pioneering work on Vedic
texts, his most considerable undertaking consisted in gathering, into a Digest of Hindu
Law (3 vol., 1797–1778), all the information he had been able to draw from Sanskrit
sources. These included the performance of religious rites, daily ablutions, division
into religious schools, the various forms of marriage etc. Having recourse to ancient
sources in order to study Indian society was an approach that would thrive in subse-
quent studies. This work brought him such recognition from the British government
of Bengal that in 1801 Colebrooke was appointed at Calcutta’s Court of Appeal and
assigned as professor of Hindu law and Sanskrit at the Fort William College in Cal-
cutta, which had been opened one year earlier. He thus became the ¿rst European to
teach Sanskrit in an of¿cial framework. Thanks to him, the circulation of knowledge
on India thus reached new levels.௘39 Made President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal
in 1806, he agreed to the proposal of Serampore’s missionaries to make their printing
press available for the publication of Sanskrit translations. Lastly, when he returned to
England in 1815, Colebrooke donated his collection of manuscripts to the East India
Of¿ce, and he also played a decisive role in the creation of the Royal Asiatic Society
of Great Britain and Ireland in 1824.
The advances made possible by this enthusiastic generation of British administra-
tors and scholars were not to the taste of all the British. The notion of the distinctive
antiquity of Indian civilisation and its link with Egypt, the hypothesis that Indian
civilisation had preceded Greek civilisation, and ¿nally the representation that the re-
ligion of India was not some form of paganism but bore traces of the natural religion
of origins – all these assertions had already earned Jones very angry comments. Cole-
brooke encountered the same hostility when he demonstrated, for instance, that Indian
astronomy and mathematics were older that those of Greece. As can be seen from other
indications – the publication of a book by James Mill depicting Indian history in a very
negative light,௘40 or the policy centred on anglicising education implemented by the
new governor, Lord Thomas Babington McAulay – the “Indomania” of the founders
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal was gradually giving way to growing “Indophobia”
amongst the colonisers.௘41 Added to the European circulation of knowledge on India

39 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 32. Amongst his most famous essays are “On the Duties of a Faithful
Hindu Widow” (1795, Asiatic Researches IV), “On the Sanskrit and Prakrit languages” (1801,
Asiatic Researches VII), “On Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry” (1808, Asiatic Researches V), and “On
the Veda, or Sacred Writings of the Hindus” (1805, Asiatic Researches VIII); to be referred to
later in this book.
40 J. Mill, History of British India, London 1818.
41 See Chapters 3 and 4 in Trautmann, p. 62–98 and 99–130, as well as G. Cannon, The Life and
Mind of Oriental Jones. Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics, Cambridge/New
York/Melbourne/Sydney 1990, p. 14.

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42 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

over several decades, this situation probably contributed to the development of Sanskrit
studies not on Indian soil but in Europe itself as of the beginning of the 19th century,
and the Germans soon made up for lost time.

Paris at the Crossroads of European Orientalisms

From Bengal to Germany

In 1805, A. G. Griffet de Labaume, the French translator of Asiatic Researches, made
the following comment on Calcutta’s Sanskritists:
These men have been familiarised with the customs, opinions and prejudices of
the natives thanks to a long sojourn in the country and great knowledge of the
language or rather languages spoken there. To educate themselves, they have
means that their predecessors lacked; and when these means are furthermore
forti¿ed by the resources provided by wealth and power and those that only
time can bring them, then one can believe that these men have seen more and
have seen better than the others.௘42
While it did not do justice to the work of missionaries and travellers, this view resulted
from the acknowledgment of an undeniable change of scale. Until then, production
of Sanskrit studies had been sporadic, related to solitary individuals who did not al-
ways pass on the keys needed to understand the data they had collected. The creation
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal made it clear that Sanskrit interested Europeans; it
was henceforth promoted by an organisation whose aim was to encourage not only
the writing of works on the subject but also their circulation to the general public. The
publications issued within the framework of this society did not so much invalidate
the missionaries’ and travellers’ ¿nds as bring them out of oblivion. The rupture was
thus more an awareness of what was already available than a clean sweep or a scien-
ti¿c construction starting from ground zero. Primarily consisting in translations, these
publications enabled Europeans who did not know Sanskrit to have access to the lit-
erature produced in this language. They thus generated the right conditions for people
to be interested in manuscripts up to then forgotten on the back shelves of libraries.
Consecutive translations from Sanskrit to English then from English to German en-
abled German readers to be acquainted with Sanskrit culture even before they were
in a position to read the original texts; incidentally, now that printing had come into
play௘43 more and more of these were arriving in Europe.
Even before the translation of Asiatic Researches by Fick and Kleuker in 1795–
1797, the interest of the German public had already been aroused by Georg Forster’s
translations of the Sanskrit literary works that had been disclosed by the British. All
these he accomplished within a very short period of time: his translation of Wilkins’

42 Quoted by J. Filliozat, Deux cents ans d’indianisme, p. 86.

43 The ¿rst text printed in Sanskrit characters (i. e. Devanagari alphabet) was the ‫ۿ‬tusaۨhƗra (The
Seasons) by KƗlidƗsa. This was done following William Jones’ initiative, in 1792.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 43

HƟƟtǀpădƝs (HitopadeĞa) was published in 1787, the same year as the English original,
and Sakontala oder der entscheidende Ring, his version of Jones’ Sacontalá, came out
in 1791, two years after the British edition. Thanks to the verse it inspired Goethe, this
Sanskrit piece produced a passion amongst the German public, commensurate with
the reception it had already met in England.௘44 It seems that Forster never doubted the
favourable outcome reserved for the play in Germany; in the foreword to his translation,
he enunciated the reasons why, according to him, Germans could but be interested in
it, asserting that, contrary to the “conventional” and “narrow” taste of the French, the
Italians and the British, the Germans had a “philosophical” and “universal” inclination.
They were able, he said, to appreciate a work of art not for its conformity to their aes-
thetical canons but for the knowledge that they would acquire from contemplating it.௘45
The spontaneity and lack of coordination of these German translations reÀect the
embryonic state of Oriental studies in Germany when they concerned subjects other
than Biblical and were not carried out in relation to theology. This observation is cor-
roborated by the diversity of situations among the various translators. Forster’s interest
in the Orient and distant cultures had been awakened owing to his travels with his fa-
ther, Johann Reinhold Forster. It was not as a philologist but as a naturalist that Forster
earned himself a solid reputation, with the works he achieved when he accompanied
James Cook in his second trip around the world, in 1772–1775.௘46 For that matter, it was
as a natural science teacher that Forster was hired at the Collegium Carolinum in Kas-
sel, in 1778. During the years he spent in Kassel, he got in touch with the erudite circles
of Göttingen; he was to be very close to the daughter of the Orientalist Michaelis௘47 and
to marry Therese Heyne, the daughter of another great ¿gure of philology in Göttingen,
Christian Gottlob Heyne.௘48 At that time, he also met Johann Gottfried Herder, with

44 According to Schwab, La Renaissance orientale, op. cit., p. 58, there were ¿ve new editions of
Jones’ Sacontalá in England between 1790 and 1807. Forster’s translation was reprinted in 1800
(in a pirate copy), 1803, 1820, 1843, 1878 and 1888.
45 Forster distinguished between cultures that had a centre, a public opinion, fairly restrictive norms
as well as a rich social life, and de-centralised cultures where the individual reading of texts played
an important part, and which were more open to foreign cultures. On a social level, his preference
went to centralised court cultures (France, Great-Britain, the Netherlands), yet as far as cultural
life was concerned, he favoured decentralised nations, hence the notion of greater empathy with
other cultures on the part of the Germans.
46 On this voyage, Tahiti left a strong imprint on Forster, notably its inhabitants’ naturalness, serenity
and moral sense.
47 Karoline Michaelis was to be August Wilhelm Schlegel’s wife. She contributed to promoting
Condorcet’s thought, notably introducing it to Benjamin Constant and Georg Forster.
48 After his post in Kassel, Forster was appointed professor at Wilna (presently Vilnius) University.
He was to take part in a scienti¿c expedition to India organised at the behest of Catherine II, but
in the end this did not work out. In 1778, he obtained a post as librarian at Mainz University.
After three months of travelling in Holland and England with Alexander von Humboldt, he ar-
rived in Paris in 1790. He was favourably impressed by the Revolution, which was taking place
peacefully. At that time he was in favour of English-style reformism. Later on, in 1792, when the
French troops entered in Mainz, he took the side of the Jacobins. His translation of Jones’ Sacon-
talá (1791) was published in-between these two events. When he was in London, Forster had

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44 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

whom he shared the desire to awaken his fellow countrymen’s benevolence towards
the various foreign peoples, by spreading knowledge of their cultural production. They
also had the same, double conception of peoples – as organic totalities in relation with
one another and as individual ensembles requesting to be acknowledged as such. For
that matter, Herder’s reaction to Forster’s Sakontala was very positive.
Amongst the Germans involved in the translation of works from Calcutta, only
one was truly familiar with Oriental languages: Friedrich Majer, who translated Jones’
Bhăgvăt GƝetƗ and the GƯta Govinda in 1802. He taught universal history as a Privat-
dozent at Iena University, and his students bene¿ted from his skills in these languages.
Indian tongues were not amongst his specialties,௘49 yet his interest in India was such that
in 1796 he gave a series of lectures on the country, based on the second-hand knowl-
edge he had acquired. As an indication of his will to behave as a specialist in spite of
that, he chose to publish his translations of the Bhăgvăt GƝetƗ and the GƯta Govinda in
the Asiatisches Magazin. This journal, then recently founded by the sinologist Julius
Klaproth in Weimar and modelled on Asiatic Researches, aimed to provide an area
devoted to Oriental research in a large sense, not speci¿cally linked to theological
issues.௘50 Whatever his real level of Indological competency might have been, Majer
gave a decisive impulse to the vogue for India in German Romanticism. He was a dis-
ciple of Herder, who himself had translated fragments of Wilkins Bhăgvăd GƝetƗ in
his Zerstreute Blätter. In the last volume of Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der
Menschheit (Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind), published in 1788,
Herder had expressed his conviction that India was the cradle of humanity, and Majer
shared his view.௘51 Residing in Iena, Majer was in close relation with the representatives
of Early German Romanticism: Schleiermacher, Schelling, Novalis and Fr. Schlegel.
Herder’s inÀuence and notably the choice place he assigned to India in the history
of mankind shed light on Majer’s fervour to communicate his knowledge on Indian
culture, as did the important role Majer intended to give to India in his mythological
studies.௘52 In 1798, Herder prefaced the Kulturgeschichte der Völker published by Majer.

familiarized himself with Jones’ text, immediately translating several pages and sending them to
Germany so that Schiller would publish them in his journal Thalia. This was done as early as the
summer of 1790. The full translation kept him busy from August 1790 until March 1791. Politi-
cally disavowed in Germany, Forster died in exile in Paris in 1794.
49 On Friedrich Majer and India, see A. Michaels, Wissenschaft als Einheit von Religion, Philosophie
und Poesie. Die Indologie als frühromantisches Projekt einer ganzheitlichen Wissenschaft, in: G.
Brandstetter/G. Neumann, Romantische Wissenspoetik. Die Künste und die Wissenschaften um
1800, Würzburg/Königshausen 2004, p. 325–340.
50 The Asiatisches Magazin was to cease publication the following year, for want of enough inter-
ested readers. See S. Mangold, Eine “weltbürgerliche Wissenschaft” – Die deutsche Orientalistik
im 19. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart 2004, p. 44.
51 Fr. Majer, Brahma oder die Religion der Indier als Brahmaismus, Leipzig 1818, p. 240.
52 In the philological-myth dispute that was raging in the early 19th century, Majer took sides with
J. von Görres and Fr. Creuzer against J. Voss, championing Oriental religions and the notion that
Ancient India had initially been monotheist.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 45

Several names should be added to this evocation of those who passed on the Brit-
ish (and French) works to Germany: Johann Christian Hüttner, who translated Jones’
Institutes of Hindu Law࣠௘53 in 1797; Johann Friedrich von Dalberg, who provided a trans-
lation of W. Jones’ Gita-Govinda࣠௘54 in 1802; and especially Johann Friedrich Kleuker,
the German translator of Asiatic Researches as well as Anquetil Duperron’s works.
Kleuker was a very close friend of Herder, sharing his strong hostility to the rational-
ist theory. Although Kleuker was a great believer, he did not accept the dogma of the
Church’s infallibility: He considered that there were subjective elements whose truth
was relative (such as the dogma of the original sin, for instance). Owing to his close-
ness with theosophists, it was only with great dif¿culties that he ¿nally obtained a post
as a teacher of theology at Kiel University (1798). There, he ¿ercely fought against the
supporters of rationalism. In the Indian domain, in addition to his translations, Kleu-
ker carried out undertakings related to the Brahmanical religion.௘55 While his situation
was different, Majer knew and highly appreciated Kleuker’s work. Ten years after the
translation of Anquetil Duperron’s Oupnek’hat was published, he was still proclaim-
ing his enthusiasm for this book to the people around him; it was through him that
Schopenhauer discovered these Upani‫܈‬ad that were to be so important to him later on.
In those days of pre-Indology, when translators served as conveyers in the transfer
of knowledge from British India to Germany, what banded them together was thus their
relatively similar intellectual references (amongst whom Herder ranked ¿rst) rather
than their respective institutional positions.

Learning Sanskrit in Europe

Since German versions of the main books produced in Calcutta were available as early
as the 1800s, German readers could bypass the notorious drawback of high price and
slow delivery for books printed in India. At the same time, in Germany as well as in
France these dif¿culties generated the need to become free from British undertakings.
However, a persistent problem was that the British who had acquired the mastery of
Sanskrit in India through sustained effort and with the help of the pandits were in no
position to pass on this knowledge. Nor were they able to let it bear fruit in Europe,
because they died in India or returned to England at an already advanced age.௘56 Twenty
years after the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Great Britain still had no
institutional structure to perpetuate and bring to fruition the knowledge developed in
Calcutta. It was not until 1806 that a chair in “Sanskrit and other Indian languages”

53 Translation published under the title Hindu Gesetzbuch oder Menu’s Verordnungen nach Cullacas
Erläuterungen, ein Inbegriff des indischen Systems religiöser und bürgerlicher PÀichten, Weimar.
54 J. Fr. H. von Dalberg, Gita Govinda oder die Gesänge Jajadevas, eines altindischen Dichters, Erfurt
55 J. Fr. Kleuker, Über die Religion und Philosophie der Inder, Riga 1778; Das brahmanische Reli-
gionssystem nach Bartholomaeo Systema Brahmanicum, Riga 1797.
56 In 1824, A. W. Schlegel acknowledged, once again, the inadequacy of Sanskrit teaching in Great
Britain: J. Körner (ed.), Briefe von und an August Wilhelm Schlegel, vol. 1: Die Texte, Zurich/
Leipzig/Vienna 1930, p. 405–411 (A. W. Schlegel to Johannes Schulze, Bonn, February 24, 1824).

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46 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

was established at the newly created East India College in Haileybury, near London,
to train the East India Company managers. Another major handicap was that the ¿rst
Western grammars of Sanskrit were only published belatedly: in 1805 by Colebrooke
(in Calcutta), in 1806 by Carey (in Serampore), in 1808 by Wilkins (in London), and
in 1810 by Henry Pitts Forsters (in Calcutta).
This is why individual initiatives prevailed in the matter of learning Sanskrit in Eu-
rope, and interested scholars ended up forming networks wherever there were available
manuscripts. Such places were then few; apart from Oxford, the only true collection
was in Paris.௘57 In order for these manuscripts to be used, they had to be properly cata-
logued so that readers could know their contents. Admittedly, there was a catalogue
compiled by P. Pons in 1739, yet it had obvious shortcomings and the librarians of
the Oriental manuscripts did not have the skills to complete it. An opportunity to put
this situation right came up in 1803 when Alexander Hamilton, a former of¿cer in
the British army in India and a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, travelled to
Paris to collate the manuscripts of HitopadeĞa. Following the rupture of the Treaty
of Amiens signed the year before between Great Britain and Napoleon Bonaparte’s
France, he was held up there. In spite of his nationality, which assimilated him to being
a war prisoner, Hamilton had all the leisure to pursue his research because it greatly
interested the philosopher, linguist and ideologue Constantin-François de Volney, who
gave him his protection.௘58 In return for the leeway granted to him, Hamilton took on
two essential undertakings for the emergence of European Indology. One was in col-
laboration with Louis-Matthieu Langlès, who had been the administrator of the Ecole
spéciale des langues orientales vivantes ever since its foundation in 1795, as well as
a teacher of Persian and Malay in that same school and, especially, the librarian for
Oriental manuscripts at the (then-called “Imperial”) Library of Paris: he proceeded
to establish a well-ordered list of these documents, accompanying each entry with a
descriptive note.௘59 Other than that, Hamilton – who would later be the ¿rst holder of a
chair of Sanskrit at Haileybury – soon found himself in a position to dispense courses
in Sanskrit, although unof¿cially, to various scholars who had sought him out. In this
way, by a fortunate coincidence, while the political crisis between France and Great
Britain made it impossible for materials published in Calcutta to arrive in Europe, this
shortcoming was compensated by Hamilton’s presence in Paris. Amongst his students
were Volney, the historian of literature Claude Fauriel, a young German Orientalist
named Gottfried Hagemann and especially Friedrich Schlegel.௘60

57 L. Delisle, Le Cabinet des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque impériale (puis) nationale […], Paris
1868–1881, 4 vol.
58 R. Rocher, Alexander Hamilton (1762–1824). A Chapter in the Early History of Sanskrit Philol-
ogy, New Haven (Connecticut) 1968, p. 37.
59 A. Hamilton/L.-M. Langlès, Catalogue des Manuscrits Samskrits de la Bibliothèque Impériale,
avec des notices du contenu de la plupart des ouvrages, etc., Magasin encyclopédique, 1807/4,
p. 5–48, 241–287.
60 Despite persistent historiographical legends, Louis-Matthieu Langlès was not amongst Hamilton’s
students; neither was the Latinist and Hellenist Jean-Louis Burnouf, nor the future holder of the

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 47

How Schlegel came to study Sanskrit with Hamilton has been known since Rosane
Rocher wrote a very detailed biography of the British Orientalist. Attracted to the
Oriental collections of its library, Schlegel had arrived in Paris in June 1802, notably
to study Persian with Antoine-Léonard de Chézy, an Orientalist then employed at
the Cabinet of Oriental manuscript in the Library of Paris.௘61 Yet although he started
with Persian, Schlegel especially wanted to acquire the mastery of Sanskrit so that he
could decipher the ĝakuntalƗ manuscripts, whose translation by Jones had sparked
off his enthusiasm. However, he soon experienced the extreme dif¿culty of having to
cope on his own with whatever available sources he could ¿nd. Therefore the help of
Alexander Hamilton was especially welcome and from the spring of 1803 to the sum-
mer of 1804 the British Orientalist instructed him for several hours on a daily basis.௘62
That summer, when he was back in Köln Schlegel attested to the importance of Paris
in his apprenticeship of Sanskrit in a letter to the Theologian and Orientalist H. E. G.
Paulus: “I sense that I still cannot rid myself of Paris, and whatever little attraction
to this city I might otherwise feel, I must absolutely go back there because of San-
skrit; indeed, when embarked on something so rare and important, one has no right to
give it up.”௘63
In reality, during his next sojourn in Paris in the winter 1804–1805, Schlegel was
sick most of the time and did not have the opportunity to purse his lessons with Ham-
ilton. However, his works on Sanskrit did not stop there; as early as 1805, he started
to bring together all that he had learned, with a view to writing the large synthesis of
Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, which was published in 1808.௘64 Starting
on the ¿rst page, Schlegel mentioned the pioneers of the Asiatic Society of Bengal,
Wilkins and Jones, as well as Jones’ Sacontalá or the Fatal Ring. He also said that he
was pleased to have had access to the manuscripts of the Library of Paris, where he had
found literary works and indigenous grammar and vocabulary treatises.௘65 At the end of
the preface, he also named the European missionaries (the Jesuit Heinrich Roth, the
Carmelite Paolino di San Bartolomeo, the Jesuit Hanxleden) who preceded him in the
study of Sanskrit. This goes to prove that the missionaries had not been totally over-
shadowed by the creation of the Asiatic Society. This enumeration was also a means to
emphasize the German role in the history of the “study of the ancient Indian language”.

Sanskrit chair at the Collège de France, Antoine Léonard de Chézy. Langlès never learnt Sanskrit,
J.-L. Burnouf learnt it from Chézy who himself had self-studied it.
61 Starting in 1805–1806, Chézy was to teach Persian at the Ecole des langues orientales vivantes,
regularly replacing Langlès, from whom he took over as professor in 1824.
62 H. von Chézy, Unvergessenes, Leipzig 1858, p. 270. Contacts between these two scholars seem
to have been even closer because Hamilton was a paying guest at the Schlegels’, starting in the
summer of 1803. G. Hagermann was also lodging at the Schlegel’s.
63 Quoted in Rocher, p. 50. Fr. Schlegel reiterated this opinion two years later in a letter to Friedrich
von Raumer dated from Köln, on July 25, 1806: P. Hesselmann, Unveröffentlichte Briefe von
Friedrich Schlegel, Jahrbuch der deutschen Schiller-Gesellschaft XXXVIII, 1994, p. 3–5.
64 U. Oppenberg, Quellenstudien zu Friedrich Schlegels Übersetzungen aus dem Sanskrit, Marburg
1965, p. 116–117.
65 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. V.

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48 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Schlegel therefore consciously placed himself within a historical continuity, in the hope
that it would go on after him.௘66 He clearly expressed this wish in his preface, assigning
goals to his book: “to provide additional proof of the potential fruitfulness to be found
in Indian studies, to further broadcast the conviction that many rich treasures are still
concealed in this domain, to arouse passion for these studies in Germany, too, at least
temporarily, and to establish the representation of it all on solid bases from which to
safely go on with our construction.” In effect, because of his Essay and the reputation
of Paris as the capital of European Orientalism that he was spreading, in the following
decades many Germans headed for France to learn Sanskrit.
Amongst the ¿rst of these emulators there was Bopp, a Catholic originating from
Mainz who had left his hometown when it was taken by Napoleon’s revolutionary
armies. In Aschaffenburg, where his father worked at the service of the Archbishop,
he became the student of K. J. Windischmann, a professor of philosophy and universal
history who belonged to the conservative Catholic circles and whose admiration for
India equalled that of the Romantics. Thanks to him, Bopp received a grant from the
King of Bavaria in order to go and study in Paris. As was the case with Fr. Schlegel,
Bopp’s intention was not only to learn Sanskrit, but also to study Persian and Arab
with Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, an Orientalist of European renown. De Sacy was
highly inÀuential at the birth of professional Orientalism.௘67 It was not from Hamilton –
who had returned to England in 1806 – that Bopp learned Sanskrit, but from Antoine-
Léonard de Chézy, who had been fascinated at an early stage by the Indian collections
that scholars were beginning to unearth. Fearing to arouse the jealousy of his former
master Silvestre de Sacy, Chézy had not dared to approach Hamilton. Therefore, in-
stead of bene¿ting from the latter’s teachings he undertook this study by himself, in
the utmost secrecy. He was hoping that his efforts would bring him glory, and they
were rewarded in 1814 when the ¿rst chair of Sanskrit in Continental Europe was cre-
ated for him at the Collège de France.௘68 Yet as was the case with Schegel, Chézy had
not acquired a thorough command of Sanskrit. Like him, he remained limited to the
texts that had already been examined by the Orientalists of Calcutta. As for Bopp, he
wished to overcome this state of dependency and acquire an accurate understanding
of Sanskrit grammar. Little satis¿ed with Chézy, he worked on his own and practiced
by reading the entire MahƗbhƗrata, the great Sanskrit epic.

66 Ibid., p. XI.
67 Silvestre de Sacy had a dominant position in Oriental Studies in France: he held the of¿ces of
professor of literary and common Arabic at the Ecole des langues orientales (1795), president of
that same school (1824), professor of Persian at the Collège de France 1805, administrator of the
Collège de France (1823), librarian in charge of Oriental manuscripts (1833) and ¿rst president
of the Asiatic Society of Paris (1822).
68 S. Lévi, Les origine d’une chaire. L’entrée du Sanskrit au Collège de France, in: Livre jubilaire
composé à l’occasion du IVe centenaire du Collège de France, 1932, p. 329–344, reprinted in:
Renou, Mémorial Sylvain Lévi, p. 145–162; H. de Chézy, Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de
M. A.-L. de Chézy de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres par sa veuve, Paris 1834,
p. 7.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 49

His grammatical mastery of the Sanskrit language stood out as early as his ¿rst
book, Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache, in 1816. While he hadn’t
been able to attend Hamilton’s lectures, he made up for it when he had the opportu-
nity to prolong his studies in London from 1818 until 1820, thanks to a new grant
from the King of Bavaria. There, he got in touch with Wilkins and Colebrooke. This
sojourn enabled him to complete his collation of the manuscripts on an episode of
the MahƗbhƗrata, the NalopƗkhyƗna, publishing its translation into Latin in 1819 in
London (Nalus. Carmen sanscritum e Mahàbhàrato). The manuscripts had been lent
to him by Colebrooke and Hamilton. The latter had just retired from his post at Hai-
leybury and had taken Bopp under his wing in London. As had been the case earlier
with Schlegel, Bopp worked with a clear intention to make Sanskrit easier to study
in Europe, hence the great care he put into such publications.௘69 Later on, he also con-
tributed to the teaching of that language with the publication of a Sanskrit grammar
(Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Sanskrit-Sprache, Berlin 1824–1829) and glossary
(Glossarium Sanskritum, Berlin 1830).௘70
Within the space of a decade, the ¿rst network of scholars concerned with India
thus took shape in Paris, around the collection of the Imperial Library. Its French-
German dimension was not the least of its characteristics. August Wilhelm Schlegel
was part of this generation. His brother’s Essay spurred him on to go to Paris and learn
about ancient India and its languages. This took place in several stages. In 1814, the
Emperor’s abdication enabled him to go to the capital with Mme de Staël, yet when
Napoleon returned to the island of Elba in March 1815, Schlegel was forced to leave.
He ¿rst went to Coppet, Switzerland, and then to Italy, until he could go back to Paris
in the winter of 1816. He probably practiced his Sanskrit continuously all throughout
this period. Initially, he had intended to study with Chézy, with whom his brother had
kept up a good relationship. It seems that he was soon disappointed by the French Ori-
entalist’s lessons. Schlegel preferred Bopp, who had already completed two years of
Sanskrit studies in Paris when he arrived there.௘71 He was able to pursue his linguistic
training further than his brother thanks to Bopp’s assistance and the grammars by Carey,
Wilkins and Forsters. Above all, contrary to Friedrich who, in the domain of Indian
studies, limited himself to his book published in 1808, A. W. Schlegel was intent on
making Sanskrit his specialty. Indeed, India was to remain a constant preoccupation
until his death in 1845. In 1842, bolstered by his progression, he wrote the following

69 S. Lefmann, Franz Bopp, sein Leben und seine Wissenschaft, Berlin 1891, vol. II, p. 88 (Bopp to
A. W. Schlegel, August 8, 1820).
70 Another German, Othmar Frank, had already published a Sanskrit grammar four years before
Bopp, yet of lesser quality. He was also the author of a Sanskrit chrestomathy elaborated from
the London manuscripts.
71 See the correspondence between Bopp and A. W. Schlegel, which started as early as 1815 and
chieÀy dealt with questions concerning Sanskrit: Lefmann, vol. I, “Annex”, p. 84–114.

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50 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

It should be said that in India, the convenient assistance of indigenous scholars

has enabled a few authors to make it seem as though they were more competent
in the [Sanskrit] language than they actually are. We, the Indologists who have
remained in Europe, can take great pride in “steering our own craft”, yet we
must be even more wary of reefs and sandbanks.௘72

The triumphant tone in this passage is emblematic of the progress achieved in Europe.
Some twenty years before, travelling to Calcutta had been suf¿cient to glorify whoever
undertook to study Sanskrit. Henceforth, faced with the growing ambition and self-
assurance of “armchair” philologists, the absolute authority of the Orientalists from
the Asiatic Society of Bengal would vacillate.

Sanskrit Studies in Germany

There now remained for the Germans to ¿nd a way to develop Sanskrit studies in Ger-
many itself, which implied implementing an active policy of manuscript acquisition.
Yet buying such documents was a complex and expensive undertaking. In certain in-
stances, such as that involving the Tübingen University Library, missionaries returning
from India facilitated the project by donating manuscripts. Yet generally speaking, the
libraries that wanted to put together a collection had to pay out considerable amounts
of money. Therefore these libraries’ Oriental collections were not sizeable until the mid
19th century. In the case of the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin, great progress was
accomplished during the ¿rst half of the 19th century: in 1827, the collection barely
went beyond eight Indian manuscripts (two in Tamil and six in Sanskrit); in 1841 it
still only amounted to thirty one pieces, but by 1853 it had risen to no less than one
thousand and four hundred manuscripts. This increase was largely due to the acquisi-
tion of Sir Robert Chambers’ collection; Chambers had been a judge at the service of
the East India Company in Calcutta at the end of the 18th century and he had accumu-
lated a considerable amount of manuscripts between 1774 and 1799.௘73 The negotiations
lasted more than twenty years before the Prussian Government managed to lower the
absolutely exorbitant price of the collection, while making sure not to lose their lead to
the bene¿t of France or Great Britain, who were just as keen to take possession of this
treasure. To such price dif¿culties were added those of locating available sources. In
order to ¿nd out the existence and location of a manuscript or the interest and content of
another one, as well as to be able to best negotiate, German Indologists strived to keep
close relationship networks with their colleagues, especially the British (as Napoleon’s
defeat had accelerated the withdrawal of the French in India). While they waited for

72 A. W. Schlegel, Indien in seinen Hauptbeziehungen. Über die Zunahme und den gegenwärtigen
Stand unserer Kenntnisse von Indien, 2. Abtheilung: Von Vasco da Gama bis auf die neueste Zeit,
in: Berliner Kalender auf das Gemein Jahr 1831, Berlin 1831, p. 136.
73 Fr. Rosen, Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts collected During his Residence in India by the
late Sir Robert Chambers, Knt, Chief Justice of Bengal, with a Brief Memoir, by Lady Chambers,
London 1838. See I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 126–130.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 51

this purchase policy to bear fruit, Indologists continued to travel to Paris, London and
Oxford in order to copy the manuscripts they lacked. Not only did this task take months,
but it was often complicated by rivalries, as the international dimension of Orientalist
networks in the early 19th century did not keep them from competitiveness.௘74 Con-
sequently, one can better understand that Franz Bopp, Friedrich and August Wilhelm
Schlegel were concerned with ef¿ciently distributing Sanskrit texts in Germany. Mul-
tiplying by printing remained the most convincing means to do so. For the publication
of Nalus in 1819, Bopp had recourse to Sanskrit fonts that Wilkins had imported from
India into Great Britain. The following year, A. W. Schlegel proceeded to persuade the
Prussian government to have Devanagari characters moulded, in order to have their
own printing shop.௘75 Allotted a generous budget to carry out his project, he drew his in-
spiration from the ¿nest of the Paris manuscripts to design all the letters of the Sanskrit
alphabet, which he then had engraved and moulded by Parisian craftsmen he had cho-
sen himself. He used the fonts thus obtained as early as 1823 to print the BhagavadgƯtƗ,
the HitopadeĞa and the RƗmƗya۬a. Bopp followed suit in 1825 in Berlin, setting
up printing works with Devanagari characters also cast from the French matrices.௘76
Once again, the way to emancipation had gone through international connections.

A Philosophical, Scienti¿c or Romantic Project?

Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophical Project

When Fr. Schlegel started to be interested in India, he clearly assigned it the role of
breaking up with the trends of his time. The hopes he placed on the knowledge of an-
cient India and its languages were directly related to his resolution to ¿nd a counter-
model to Western society, which he considered characterised by fragmentation. He
deemed that a tendency had asserted itself since antiquity, aiming to apprehend the
world on a reÀexive mode and fragment it into categories of thought rather than to
grasp it immediately in its unity.௘77 According to Schlegel, the spirit of analysis and dis-
section was predominant in the reign of reason that the Aufklärung intended to make
prevail, of which empiricism was one of the worst avatars. To him, Modern Europe

74 In a text published in 1820, (Über den gegenwärtigen Stand der indischen Philologie, Indische
Bibliothek I, p. 1) A. W. Schlegel described this situation as true competition: “The Germans are
ahead of the other European peoples in many domains of research; in none of these they will
tolerate to be behind their neighbours.” Further on, his tone is more caustic: “Should the English
take it into their heads to establish a monopoly on Indian literature, it would be too late. Let them
keep cinnamon and cloves; on the other hand, these intellectual goods are the collective property
of the cultured world.” (p. 15).
75 Lefmann, vol. I, “Annex”, p. 89–90 (A. W. Schlegel to Bopp, August 20, 1820). Until a devanƗgari
printing press was set up in Germany, scholars had recourse to lithography, which was a much
less practical process.
76 W. Kirfel, Die Anfänge des Sanskrit-Druckes in Europa, Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 31–32,
1915, p. 277–278.
77 Fr. Schlegel, Reise nach Frankreich, 1803, p. 5–40, taken up in E. Behler (ed.), Kritische Fried-
rich-Schlegel Ausgabe, vol. VII, Munich/Paderborn/Vienna 1966, p. 56–79.

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52 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

was characterised by unwavering optimism as to the perfectibility of mankind and the

progress of science, hence there was a fundamental inaptitude to religion. This ill did
not only manifest itself in the Aufklärung, but also in the French Revolution; in pre-
ceding centuries, it had already strongly Àared up in the division of Church between
the Catholics and Protestants. Schlegel doubly condemned the Reformation, ¿rst for
having broken the universality of Christianity, then for having brought about a highly
soul-destroying tradition of Biblical exegesis, thus closing direct access to the divine
word. If Man cut himself off from Revelation, it was not because his reason failed him
and led him into error, but on the contrary because he made too much use of his reason.
In Schlegel’s eyes only the Orient escaped from such disharmony. It was therefore in
the “luminous ardour of the Orient”,௘78 an Orient more and more exclusively assimi-
lated to India,௘79 that he hoped to ¿nd the cure for the ills of Europe. Consequently, in
taking an interest in India he sought a key to lost unity in the hope of restoring the link
between the „four elements of humanity, which are ʌ [poetry], ij [philosophy], [mor-
als] and relig[ion].”௘80
In Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808), Fr. Schlegel addressed is-
sues that were not new to European thought: the origin of language, the diversity of
languages, the original Revelation and the status of pantheism. Yet he broke free from
the treatment that had been until then reserved to such issues, and in that regard San-
skrit played an important part.
The diversity of languages had already retained the attention of scholars for quite
a long time, yet in a manner that had hardly evolved. Starting in the Renaissance, the
expansion and grammaticalisation of European vernacular languages, the development
of printing and the new languages uncovered through the great discoveries, all drove
scientists to describe every known language. For this they used grammatical catego-
ries inherited from Greek and Latin. The databases thus compiled made it possible
for a universal grammar to come about in the 17th century (in France it was known
as “grammaire générale”). The aim was to “¿nd the One in the Multiple and to ex-
plain the diversity of linguistic categories while relating this grammar to the unity of
human thought.”௘81 In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this project gave rise to

78 Ibid., p. 78.
79 Cf. the famous letter Fr. Schlegel wrote to Ludwig Tieck (Paris, September 25, 1803): “In the
beginning, I was mostly occupied with Persian art and language. Yet now everything is held back
by Sanskrit. There you really ¿nd the source of all languages, and all the thoughts and poems of
the human mind; everything, absolutely everything comes from India, with no exception. I’ve
been seeing things very differently since I’ve been able to draw from this source.” Quoted in
Hesselmann, Unveröffentlichte Briefe.
80 Quoted in Oppenberg, Quellenstudien, from a “philosophical fragment” by Fr. Schlegel (1799).
In Iena in 1799 – at the time of the ¿rst, open-minded, Romanticism – his intellectual project still
followed on the Aufklärung’s universalism aiming to bring all the domains of knowledge into
contact. It was only in 1802–1803, inÀuenced by his sojourn in Paris, that Fr. Schlegel gradually
adopted reactionary ideas and that his research for universalism turned into a quest for lost unity.
81 S. Auroux, Comment surmonter Babel? Monogénétisme et universalité linguistique, Corps écrit
36, Babel ou la diversité des langues, Paris 1990, p. 115–122.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 53

larger and larger collections of known languages, such as Mithridates oder Allgemeine
Sprachenkunde (Mithridates or General Science of Languages) undertaken by Johann
Christoph Adelung and completed by Johann Severin Vater (Berlin 1806–1817). Even
so, the approach hardly changed; the growing number of available data merely made it
possible to bring out linguistic categories deemed as universal, which were then used
to classify the constitutive elements of the various languages listed. This effort at or-
ganising and rationalising prevailed over diversity by continually bringing it back to
categories belonging to a sole, immutable and essential linguistic order. At the same
time, the historical dimension drifted away௘82 and in the absence of empirical data that
would make it possible to establish a genealogy of languages, any attempt at going
back to the origin of language could but be speculative.௘83
The perspective remained mostly philosophical and typological. The genetic di-
mension and the search for kinship had certainly made up a central element in the
comparison of languages since the Renaissance, yet neither the resemblances nor the
divergences were considered in terms of diachronic transformation௘84 and research on
the origin of languages remained in keeping with the monogenistic orthodoxy of the
Bible. Such was the case with William Jones. What interested him was not so much ob-
serving the historical development of languages as con¿rming the repartition indicated
in the Bible, among the three families: Japhetic, Semitic and Hamitic. Although Jones
had noted the similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Persian, and achieved
a ¿rst step in interpreting these similarities as the sign of a common descent, this was
not enough to give his thought a historical turn.
Conversely, Fr. Schlegel placed the historical dimension – so central to Romanti-
cism – at the heart of the cogitation he carried out on languages and peoples, based on
his study of Sanskrit. In the ¿rst paragraph of his Essay, he took up Jones’s postulates,
i. e. the existence of a kinship between Latin, Greek, Persian and German that is not
attributable to intermixture but to a common descent. Yet he went further and placed
his genealogy within a chronology, describing (wrongly so) Sanskrit as having brought
about the other languages in the group. He proclaimed his refusal to deal with these
issues in a speculative vein and asserted the necessity only to trust attested forms and
not to embark on hazardous etymologies. Any “analogy” between two terms should
always be “historically demonstrable”.௘85 From his standpoint, the historical approach
was not only the structure’s keystone; it also guaranteed its scienti¿c character in that
it pulled the study of languages out of speculation to place it back in the ¿eld of data
that can be empirically ascertained. In claiming for such an empirical approach, it was
as though rather than breaking free from the demands of the Enlightenment represen-
tatives, Schlegel was trying to beat them on their own ground. Moreover, it seems

82 Ibid., p. 120.
83 T. Benes, Comparative Linguistics as Ethnology: In Search of Indo-Germans in Central Asia,
1770–1830, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24/2, 2004, p. 121.
84 P. Desmet/P. Swiggers, L’élaboration de la linguistique comparative, p. 130 & 135.
85 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 3 & p. 7.

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54 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

that the separation he asserted in the study of language – between a grammatical and
historical approach on the one hand and a logical and philosophical approach on the
other – went against his project to return to the unity of activities of the human mind.
However, these paradoxes can be explained: indeed, Schlegel’s positivism constituted
in no way an absolute, but a temporary stage, one which had to be overcome.௘86 This
was the case indeed, thanks to the progression, along the successive chapters, from
language to philosophy and then history.௘87
Yet there is another confusion factor: in addition to this linguistic analysis – which
he meant to be fundamentally historical and genealogical – Fr. Schlegel superimposed
another, of a strictly typological and classi¿catory nature. The root comparisons he
carried out were just as much intended for demonstrating the genealogy between San-
skrit, Latin, Greek and other languages as for establishing the characteristics of the
various language families. This is how he came to make the distinction, which has
remained famous, between “languages with inÀections” (Sprachen mit Flexion) and
“languages with af¿xes” (Sprachen durch Af¿xa). As far as morphology is concerned,
while “inÀected” languages build up new classes of words mainly by phonetically
modifying the root, “af¿xing languages” proceed by adding particles – pre¿xes or suf-
¿xes, depending – to the initial root. Among the ¿rst, Schlegel classi¿ed Sanskrit and
the languages he deemed as related to it, even though some of them (German, Scandi-
navian, Roman and “Hindustani” languages) had gradually integrated non-Àectional
elements such as modal verbs and prepositions. In the second category there are such
af¿xing languages as Chinese, Malay languages, Amerindian languages, Tatar, Mogul,
Manchu, Japanese etc.௘88 This morphological difference implies that the languages in
both groups are of totally opposite essence. “InÀectional languages” work in an or-
ganic fashion and can inde¿nitely evolve: roots, which are like true “living germs”,
have an amazing ability to develop, yet for all that the trace of the original state is
never totally erased. These languages therefore make up an “organic fabric” which
always makes it possible to recover the evolution thread. On the other hand, “af¿xing
languages” pertain to what is “mechanical”. Their roots, far from being “productive
seeds”, simply work as “an agglomeration of atoms, easily dispersed and scattered by
every casual breath”.௘89 While organic languages retain traces of their origin, the forma-
tion of mechanical languages is too subject to randomness and arbitrariness to make
a genealogical approach possible.

86 Schmitter, Le savoir romantique, p. 65.

87 The various parts of the book are entitled: “On Language”, “On Philosophy”, and “Historical
Ideas”. To these are added various excerpts from “Indian Poems” translated by Schlegel, whose
variety of themes – moral, historical, poetic etc. – makes it possible to set the unity he wished for
in actuality.
88 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit. In his typology, Schlegel is once again ambiguous.
While in some places he denies wanting to place one category above another one, in many other
passages he praises the merits of inÀected language and sets up hierarchies, with Chinese always
at the lower place.
89 Ibid.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 55

Such a blend of historical and classi¿catory perspectives could only lead Schlegel
to give the question of the original language a different answer from those put forward
by the representatives of the Enlightenment. This transitional situation may explain
why, in this domain also, certain confusion reigns in his essay. The ambiguity starts
with the status of Sanskrit. His only certainty seems to have concerned the chronologi-
cal anteriority of Sanskrit compared to other languages of the same group. Yet while in
the ¿rst pages of the book this made him infer that these other languages were directly
deriving from Sanskrit, he was more cautious in his later developments, wondering
whether the whole family could not have stemmed from another language, this one
unknown. To this ¿rst uncertainty is added another one regarding the universality of
the original language, be it Sanskrit or not.௘90 At the end of his analyses, the monogenist
thesis still prevailed, yet more cautiously that in Jones’ writings: Fr. Schlegel declared
that “he could not follow him” when he “traced all languages back to the three large
branches that are the Indian, Arab and Tatar families, and ended up having them all
stem from a common original source despite their difference.”௘91 Given the fundamental
diversity he brought to light between the two great categories of languages, the only
way Schlegel managed to sustain the monogenist thesis was by proposing the hypoth-
esis of diverging modes of update for the original language. Disputing the thesis that
“language and the development of the mind started in the same fashion everywhere”,
he thought that af¿xing languages stemmed from “purely physical cries and all sorts
of attempts at talking by imitating noises” later gradually corrected by reason, while
inÀected languages were the fruit of “very clear and in-depth thought.”௘92 Whereas
for such thinkers of the Enlightenment as Rousseau and Condillac, and later even for
Herder, language had a human origin or stemmed from imitating animals, Schlegel
only saw there one of the branches of the evolution of languages deriving from the
original language. He considered that the latter could only have been created by God
himself.௘93 In this debate, Schlegel placed himself in the lineage of the Pietist theo-
logian and philologist Johann Georg Hamann, who was Herder’s intellectual leader
(even though Hamann and Herder had different opinions as to the origin of languages).
Hamann considered that God’s creative word had been at the origin of everything, in-
cluding human language.
Such divergences are dependent on opposite conceptions of the history of humanity.
To believe, alongside Rousseau, that the original language was of extreme simplicity,
not entitling men to distinguish themselves from animals, implied that one considered
the history of humanity in terms of progress towards increasing rationality. Language
was thought to have undergone a progressive transformation from instinctive to vol-
untary expression. On the contrary, Fr. Schlegel, using Sanskrit as evidence in order

90 Ibid.
91 Ibid., p. 85.
92 Ibid., p. 60–63.
93 Peter K. J. Park, A Catholic Apologist in a Pantheistic World. New Approaches to Friedrich Schle-
gel, in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, p. 92–93.

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56 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

to demonstrate that the most ancient languages were endowed with structures both
elaborate and amazingly clear, could not envisage the history of humanity other than
in terms of decline in relation to this primary purity and perfection. However, the most
important consequence of this decay was that man had lost touch with the original
Revelation: here we ¿nd the question of the loss of sense and unity.
In his writings dating from the ¿rst years of the 19th century, Schlegel thought that
regeneration could only come from the Orient, the only part of the world to have re-
mained the guardian of traces of the original Revelation. The idea that vestiges of the
Revelation had to be sought after in the Orient had already been formulated before, by
the Protestant Aufklärer that Schlegel held in such contempt. Drawing strength from
this conviction, they had made Oriental studies the central point in their works on
the historical, rationalist criticism of the Bible. Johann David Michaelis, for instance,
thought that the biblical text had undergone alterations related to the structures of the
various languages in which it was historically passed on. This tradition of rationalist
exegesis had been questioned by the Pietists, notably Hamann who asserted that God’s
word was of a symbolic and magical nature, that it had created the world and that traces
of the Revelation could be found in Ancient poetry as a whole, not only in religious
texts. While he shared with Michaelis the notion that divine truth was more easily ac-
cessible in the Orient, Hamann’s conviction anchored itself in other concepts, namely:
the farthest antiquity, the ¿nest poetry and the heaviest number of symbols in Oriental
languages. His disciple Herder also represented a Revelation where the Orient held
a privileged position.௘94 Schlegel’s approach – seeking in the Orient the keys to better
understanding of the Bible – admittedly drew from distant sources in the Protestant
Aufklärung, yet at the same time, it was inspired by the anti-rationalist thinkers, who
had deeply modi¿ed its spirit.
In many a ways, the attention Schlegel devoted to the “language and wisdom of the
Indians” was for him a means of renewing the way issues relating to man, language
and their origins were dealt with, and especially of opposing the rationalist optimism of
the Aufklärung. First, as opposed to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, he intended to
draw from there a remedy against the way humanity was advancing, which he judged
negative. Then, contrary to the supporters of the historical Bible criticism, he was
not seeking to question the historical authenticity of the biblical texts or to reject the
dogma of Revelation as irrational; he was rather hoping to ¿nd proof of this Revelation
in India. Lastly, contrary to Herder, who emphasised the speci¿c worth of each of the
various examples of human culture, Schlegel did not hesitate in placing India above
other nations, assigning it a salutary role for the modern Western world.௘95

94 D. Thouard, Hamann und der Streit um die Poesie der Hebräer, in: B. Gajek (ed.), Die Gegen-
wärtigkeit Johann Georg Hamanns. Acta des achten Internationalen Hamann-Kolloquiums an der
Martin-Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg 2002, Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 321–334.
95 Halbfass, Indien und Europa, p. 89. Despite this difference, Schlegel’s interest in India had largely
been passed on to him through Herder’s writings. See U. Struc-Oppenberg, Friedrich Schlegel
and the History of Sanskrit Philology and Comparative Studies, Canadian Review of Compara-
tive Literature, VII/4, autumn 1980, p. 416.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 57

From the results presented by Schlegel in his Essay, can one conclude that this proj-
ect was successful? According to him, the analysis of the Sanskrit grammatical struc-
ture demonstrates the exceptional qualities of this language: organic character, high
antiquity status and purity.௘96 These, in turn, prove that Sanskrit (and, after it, all related
languages) took shape in the light of the Revelation, while on the other hand af¿xing
languages did not bene¿t from it.௘97 Yet for all that the proximity between Sanskrit and
the divine language does not make it possible to assert that Sanskrit was precisely this
original divine language. As Schlegel considered human history in terms of degeneracy,
Sanskrit, which corresponded to a post-Revelation phase, can be placed rather in the
area of the fall mankind had experienced after the end of its communion with God.
A corollary of this situation, error is a characteristic of Indian thought. Indeed, in
the second part of his book, devoted to philosophy, Schlegel distinguished four suc-
cessive systems in Indian thought. Of the ¿rst of them, emanationism, he admitted that
it was “the oldest historically-known way of thinking of the human spirit […],”௘98 yet
he nevertheless considered it as “the ¿rst system that replaced truth, with unrestrained
fabrication and a gross error, yet nevertheless with traces of God’s truth everywhere,
and the manifestation of the fright and afÀiction inevitably caused by the ¿rst falling
away from God”.௘99 The following systems – the materialist cult of nature, dualism
and, in the end, pantheism – all represented a further degree of error in relation to
the preceding one. It was naturally towards pantheism that his criticism was the most
virulent; he did not hesitate to describe it as a “system of pure reason [which], on ac-
count of this, was already in a process of shifting from Oriental philosophy to European
philosophy.”௘100 This criticism reveals the evolution of his views as his Indian studies
were progressing. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, he was still in the current
of early romanticism and, as were many of its other representatives, he was drawn to
pantheism, a decisive element in his interest in India. On the other hand, his inclina-
tion towards Catholicism was already manifest in 1805, when he started to gather the
writing material for his Essay. Then, in 1808, a few weeks after the release of his book,
Schlegel took the plunge and converted. Heinrich Heine then sarcastically remarked:
The only criticism I have to make concerns this book’s ulterior motives. It has
been written in the interest of Catholicism […]. The same criticism could be
made about Schlegel’s Lectures on Literature [1805–1806]. […] I have the
impression that I can feel high mass incense seeping out of the book, and that I
can see all sorts of tonsured thoughts shooting up like spies in his most beauti-
ful passages.௘101

96 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 41.

97 Ibid., p. 65–66. As Park pointed out on p. 92, in the early 19th century, the term “organic” des-
ignated life and its manifestations as God’s creations.
98 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 98.
99 Ibid., p. 106–107.
100 Ibid., p. 141.
101 Quoted in Oppenberg, Quellenstudien, p. 119.

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58 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Schlegel’s caustic criticisms of pantheism can therefore be explained by the increas-

ingly clear approach he was taking – that of exalting Christianity.௘102 In the end, on his
path in search of the original Revelation, India was but a detour that enabled him, by
contrast, to appreciate the place where this Revelation actually lay, which is to say the
Old Testament.௘103
In what could India nevertheless contribute to the regeneration of the Western
world? Although he separated Sanskrit and Indian thought from the Revelation, Schle-
gel still granted that they dated back to highest antiquity. To him, India still had a major
role, as bearing witness to the furthest times in human history; this is why he devoted
the last part of this Essay to “historical ideas”. His aim was to deal with human history
in the same perspective as the one he had already adopted for the study of language,
i. e. in a “genetic” way.௘104 He would not settle for conjectures about the origin of man-
kind and its separation into diverse branches; rather, he set out to envisage history in a
dynamic fashion, respectively establishing the ancientness of each people in order to
infer the way they took form through successive migrations. If India had such impor-
tance in this approach, it was because Schlegel decided to focus his attention on the
“kinship […] between the most ancient civilised peoples in antiquity”. In his eyes all
civilisations derived their origin from Indian civilisation. Only the inÀuence of Indian
thought on the speakers of the mechanical, lifeless af¿xing languages could explain
how they managed to enter into a process of historical development and generate their
own civilisations. This inÀuence was exerted by means of small colonies of Indian
priests that went and settled, say, in Egypt, China and even Japan,௘105 that is to say by
ordinary contact. As for the obvious kinship between Sanskrit and other inÀectional
languages, it shows that the peoples who speak them are all directly descended from
Indians who migrated outside of India in very far-off times. In this case, the inÀuence
of India can be explained not by a contamination process but by ¿liation.
Such results were of crucial importance for the way European civilisation perceived
itself.௘106 In showing that the European civilisation, or rather civilisations, owed their
origins to India, Schlegel disputed Greece’s exclusive claim to serve as historical and
civilisational referent. In the Vorlesungen über Universalgeschichte, this reasoning had
enabled him to rehabilitate German tribes by showing that they originated in India:
therefore they could not be considered as Barbarian and they could legitimately claim
their place amongst the civilised peoples.௘107 In the text from 1808, this viewpoint is no

102 In his analysis of the translations of Sanskrit texts by Fr. Schlegel, Oppenberg, Quellenstudien,
p. 25, observes that Fr. Schlegel endeavoured to rub out the speci¿city of Indian thought by
modifying its conceptions towards “European representations of Christian-humanist origin”.
103 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 198.
104 Ibid., p. 171.
105 Ibid., p. 173–179.
106 M. Crépon, Les Géographies de l’esprit. Enquête sur la caractérisation des peuples de Leibniz à
Hegel, Paris 1996, p. 234–235.
107 C. Tzoref-Ashkenazi, The Nationalist Aspect of Friedrich Schlegel’s On the Language and Wis-
dom of the Indians, in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, p. 120–121, calls to mind that in the Lectures

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 59

longer clearly expressed; on the other hand, in demonstrating the Indian origin of Euro-
pean civilisations, Schlegel strongly insisted on the need to take into account Oriental
(i. e. Indian) thought in order to truly understand European thought. Not only would it
provide Europeans with the most ancient sources of their “wisdom”, but these sources
would also show the example of a synthesis between language, philosophy and history.
This was what Schlegel was hoping and praying for. Admittedly, the study of India
aimed at completing the undertaking of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century;
yet it was mainly intended to help recover that spirit, which had been led astray by
exegetes too concerned with literality and not enough with entirety.௘108
Friedrich Schlegel was thus largely dependent on questionings from the preceding
era. Still, at times he assigned them a different meaning and at other times he provided
original answers. His own motivations also Àuctuated. His 1808 Essay came out after
early romanticism had extolled Indian pantheism, taking place in the transition period
that led Schlegel to Catholicism. This was to be increasingly harder to reconcile with
his initial Indomania. Be it his enhancing the value of what is “organic”, his determina-
tion to envisage history from a “genetic” rather than rational or speculative perspective,
or his inclination towards a unity he could not bring himself to give up on, Schlegel
was driven by a number of constants that mark his persistent rooting in romanticism.
It was the same romanticism that led him to conceive his “Indophile humanism”, in
opposition to classical humanism, whose heralds included not only the rationalist
Protestant theologians but also the atheist, revolutionary French.

Franz Bopp’s Scienti¿c Standpoint

The Essay gave rise to many vocations in Germany, starting with Bopp whose Indian
studies took on a different turn than those of his predecessor. For Fr. Schlegel, the
study of India came second to his philosophical ambition, and after 1808 he went back
to his studies on universal and literary history.௘109 For his part, Bopp used his knowl-
edge of Sanskrit to devote his time to comparative grammar, an eminently technical

from 1805–1806, Schlegel mentioned, for the ¿rst time, his thesis that the Germans were de-
scended from the Indians. It was also in that text that he elaborated on the major signi¿cance of
the Middle Ages for European civilisation. According to him, the German tribes that crushed the
Roman Empire were not merely Barbarians but a free people, with its own civilisation, and it
was the Romans who tried to put their tyrannical yoke upon them. For proof of that, he took the
feudal regime of the Germans, which he considered as an improved form of the caste system –
therefore an additional proof of the Germans’ Indian origins. In the same way that, to Fichte,
the German language had retained a living contact with the ¿rst language of the Germans, in
Schlegel’s eyes the link between Sanskrit and the German language made it possible to carry out
an uninterrupted genealogy.
108 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 219.
109 Fr. Schlegel went on integrating elements of Oriental studies into his works post 1808, for in-
stance in his Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur, a lecture he gave in 1811–1812 in Vienna.
On the later reference to India in Fr. Schlegel’s works, see Oppenberg, Friedrich Schlegel, p. 430.

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60 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

The preface to his Conjugationssystem in 1816 was written by his mentor, K. J. Win-
dischmann, who explained the striving spirit in which his student undertook Oriental
Having distinguished himself in all subjects, he showed special sharpness of
mind and a strong inclination for rigorous science, particularly in philosophy
classes. He put this disposition to use in the study of languages, directly in-
tending to pierce the mystery of the human mind and to draw information on
its nature and laws […] He showed great enthusiasm in familiarising himself
with the speci¿c character and thought of Oriental antiquity, enjoying the ben-
e¿ts of both the public lectures given in our teaching institution and the more
informal company of his masters, especially as regards Oriental mythology
and philosophy. Lastly, he expressed with increasing clarity his wish to travel
to Paris in order to further familiarise himself with Oriental, and especially
Indian literature.௘110
The motivations Windischmann attributed to Bopp are close to those of Schlegel in
several respects: the will to place linguistic knowledge at the service of a philosophi-
cal project of larger scale, the intention to provide empirical bases for the investiga-
tions on the Oriental past and, lastly, the equation they posed between the history of
language and the history of the human mind. Windischmann and Bopp exchanged
letters around the time when the latter wrote his Conjugationssystem. These con¿rm
the strong impression the Essay had made on Windischmann, and his desire to see his
student continue along these lines by “giving his opuscule the shape of a supplement
to the wonderful works of Fri[edrich] Schlegel”.௘111 In one of his letters to his master,
Bopp con¿rmed that he wanted to “turn linguistic studies into philosophical and his-
torical studies”.௘112
Nevertheless, a closer examination of Bopp’s approach shows that his and Windisch-
mann’s convergence, when it came to intentions, had its limits. Contrary to Windisch-
mann’s assertions, Bopp never de¿ned his linguistic project’s philosophical dimension
as exploring the mind of the different peoples through their respective languages; the
meaning he seems to have assigned to the term “philosophical” is closer to the spirit
of the general or universal grammars (seeking the general traits of language behind its
speci¿c occurrences) than that of a philological undertaking (recounting the spirit of
the speakers of a language via linguistic analysis).௘113 The gap between Bopp’s concep-

110 K. J. H. Windischmann, Vorerinnerungen, in: Bopp, Conjugationssystem, p. I–III.

111 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 22 (Windischmann to Bopp, March 16, 1815).
112 Ibid., p. 33 (Bopp to Windischmann, November 20, 1815).
113 Schmitter, Le savoir romantique, p. 67–68: Bopp was a student of Silvestre de Sacy, an eminent
representative of general grammar. Michel Foucault, on the contrary, insists on the change of
episteme that he says took place owing to Bopp’s works (Les Mots et les Choses. Une archéologie
des sciences humaines, Paris 1966, p. 292–307). In any case, it is certain that Bopp’s comparative
grammar has unfortunately gone down in history because it has been used for racial classi¿cation,
which is not the case with General grammar.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 61

tions and those championed by Schlegel and Windischmann also concerned history.
Admittedly, like Schlegel Bopp attached great importance to the historical approach.
Nevertheless, his speci¿c philosophical project led him to make a different use of the
historical perspective, no longer “historicising” the linguistic fact – i. e. trying to elu-
cidate the great movements in the development of languages, since their kinships had
already been revealed by Jones and Schlegel. Instead, Bopp used it with the purpose
of elaborating a theoretical model able to explain the common points in the morphol-
ogy of these diverse languages, and the manner in which this morphology develops.
Furthermore, Bopp’s interest in Sanskrit was technical, motivated by the fact that
this language was probably the closest to the primitive state.௘114 Paradoxically, he was
therefore claiming that his own method adhered to the two major pillars of romantic
linguistics: philosophy and history. However, he understood them in a sense that was
already partly “de-romanticised”.
Bopp’s ambition to identify the grammatical forms common to the various lan-
guages related to Sanskrit explains that his ¿rst book, the Conjugationssystem, was
devoted to the verb, whose especially complex formation led one to expect rich obser-
vations. In conformity with the Aristotelian model for the logical analysis of clauses – a
central point in traditional grammar – Bopp de¿ned the verb as a “copula” (verbum
abstractum) that linked, within a sentence, the subject to the predicate.௘115 Yet in San-
skrit, the copula can be implicitly present or explicitly expressed, with two different
morphological situations:
Amongst all the languages we know, the sacred language of the Indians arises
as one of the best suited to express the most diverse relations and connections
in a truly organic fashion; for this, it brings into play an internal inÀection of
the radical syllable, and models it. However, notwithstanding this admirable
Àexibility, sometimes it chooses to incorporate the copula into the root; this
has the immediate effect that the various grammatical functions of the verb are
distributed between the radical syllable and the incorporated copula.௘116
In the ¿rst and most common case, the copula is not explicitly expressed. The con-
nection between subject and predicate is formulated through the simple inÀection of
the adjective that ful¿ls the function of predicate – hence Bopp’s admiration for the
“Àexibility” of a language able to express a connection merely by modifying a radical.
Following Schlegel’s example, Bopp therefore considered Sanskrit as an essentially in-
Àectional language and at the same time made clear his predilection for such languages.
Nevertheless, the second scenario comes and modi¿es the inÀectional de¿nition of
Sanskrit. The copula is expressed and af¿xed to the radical of the predicate: the inÀec-
tion is thus combined with a phenomenon of agglutination. Beforehand, both copula
and radical are inÀected in order to indicate, respectively: person and number (for the

114 Desmet/Swiggers, p. 155.

115 Bopp, Conjugationssystem, p. 3.
116 Ibid., p. 7.

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62 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

copula) and time (for the radical). Once they are joined together, they seem to be only
one; therefore they give the impression that this is a pure inÀection phenomenon, and
agglutination is not apparent. Seeing that in some cases inÀections can simply result
from the fusion of a radical with initially independent elements, Bopp’s grammatical
analysis endangered the distinction made by Schlegel between organic and mechanical
languages. This was even more so given that in Bopp’s eyes a language cannot develop
new inÀectional features, but only lose some: in compensation, the language concerned
must necessarily bring into play mechanical processes. This is how, in the respective
morphologies of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, the inÀectional part keeps decreasing.௘117
Still, in this ¿rst book written hardly four years after the beginning of Sanskrit
studies, Bopp was still greatly dependent on the foundations laid by Schlegel; inÀec-
tion remained the starting point for his morphological analyses of Sanskrit and related
languages. On the other hand, in the revised and broadened version that was published
in English a few years later, the cracks had truly become rifts. In the ¿rst pages of his
Analytical Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Teutonic Languages (1820)
Bopp challenged a key element in Schlegel’s analyses: refusing to see in Sanskrit the
mother of all the languages related to it, Bopp conversely claimed that all these tongues,
including Sanskrit, derived from the same original language.௘118 These different lan-
guages shed light on one another and Sanskrit was thus brought down to the rank of
a “cousin” language in relation to Latin and Greek, losing its pre-eminence as far as
explaining morphological evolutions went. Bopp also put into perspective the value
attached to Sanskrit when he ascertained the fundamental monosyllabic character of
Sanskrit roots. To him, this characteristic led to the following consequences:
Those languages cannot easily express grammatical modi¿cations in changing
their original material without using external adjuncts. We must expect that in
this family of languages, the principle of compounding words will extend to
the ¿rst rudiments of speech, as to the persons, tenses of verbs, and cases of
nouns, &c. That this really is the case, I hope I shall be enabled to prove in this
essay, in opposition to the opinion of a celebrated German author, who believes
that the grammatical forms of the Sanskrit, and its kindred languages, consist
merely of inÀections, or intermodi¿cation of words.௘119
The distinction between inÀection and agglutination, which was at the heart of Schle-
gel’s book, is challenged here once and for all. No doubt that, owing to his progress
in Sanskrit, Bopp was able to develop his own viewpoint. Yet his change of attitude

117 Ibid., p. 10–11. Schlegel himself had admitted that languages that were more recent than Sanskrit
had a lesser degree of inÀectional morphology, since recourse to prepositions and auxiliary verbs
was on the increase. Yet, contrary to Bopp, he had not envisaged the fact that apparent inÀections
could, in reality, be agglutinations.
118 Fr. Bopp, Analytical Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Teutonic Languages, shewing the
original identity of their grammatical structure, Annals of Oriental Literature 1, London 1820, p. 3.
119 Ibid., p. 10. However, Bopp was wrong in thinking that all Sanskrit roots (and, a fortiori, those
of all related languages) were monosyllabic.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 63

can also be explained by other factors. First, he increasingly distanced himself with
Catholicism, as can be seen in his correspondence with Windischmann whom he in-
formed of his “hatred of the papacy”,௘120 which he found arrogant and incapable, at the
beginning of that same year: 1820. Despite his former master’s exhortations, Bopp
persisted in showing if not his hostility at least his coldness vis-à-vis Catholicism.௘121
Another factor was his 1819 meeting with Wilhelm von Humboldt in London. The
scholar and statesman who would later play a decisive role in Bopp’s career devoted
special interest to linguistic studies, which he carried out in a philosophical and an-
thropological perspective. In the year of their ¿rst meeting, Bopp gave him regular
lessons in Sanskrit. Later the two scholars always remained in touch. What emerges
from their correspondence in the years 1819–1820 is that Bopp’s research had been
triggered and oriented by Humboldt himself, even though Humboldt never came round
to the practice of comparative grammar initiated by Bopp.
After he received Bopp’s translation of the NalopƗkhyƗna, taking this opportunity
to reread the Conjugationssystem, Humboldt explicitly encouraged his young fellow
countryman to “look deeper into the question of the difference between inÀected and
agglutinative languages: was there an actual difference to begin with, or did the now
undeniable difference come from the fact that the agglutinated syllables lost their origi-
nal meaning, were blurred by pronunciation and consequently now only appeared as
inÀections”.௘122 In his answer Bopp went further, declaring that inÀection was a minority
case in the Sanskrit language, where it never appeared but in two forms, either “modi¿-
cation of the radical vowel” or “reduplication”, while all other cases fell under “compo-
sition”. The two Àectional types of Sanskrit were not its speci¿city, they could be found
in every language, even American languages (which Schlegel regarded as the archetype
of mechanical languages). In his letter to Humboldt, already, Bopp’s conclusion was ¿nal:
“the division made by Schlegel between organic and mechanical languages therefore to-
tally falls to pieces, and I shall relentlessly strive to demonstrate the opposite thesis.”௘123
His reappraisal bolstered by his dialogue with Humboldt, Bopp came to reject
not only the linguistic typology put forward by Schlegel, but also the subordination
of linguistics to philosophy, although this had been one of the reasons for his interest
in Sanskrit. InÀection, the guarantor over both the purity of Sanskrit and its position
as witness to man’s origins, was now no more than a wild dream, and the ambition to
retrace the sources of the original Revelation had faded with it.௘124 At the same time,
Bopp’s attitude paradoxically disassociated itself from that of Humboldt, whose main

120 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 62–63 (Bopp to Windischmann, January 9, 1820).

121 A. Leskien, Bopp, Franz, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 3, Leipzig 1876, p. 140–149.
122 Lefmann, book II, Supplement, p. 5 (Humboldt to Bopp, Berlin, February 9, 1820).
123 Ibid., p. 7 (Bopp to Humboldt, no date). After reading Bopp’s Analytical Comparison, Humboldt
was to declare (non dated letter, in ibid., p. 11): “You have perfectly demonstrated that Sanskrit,
too, only creates its grammatical forms through agglutination, and that the difference Schlegel
makes between the languages that use it and those that use inÀection is, as I have always thought,
a mistake generated by insuf¿cient knowledge of the language.”
124 R. Gérard, L’Orient et la pensée romantique allemande, Paris 1963, p. 158.

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64 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

objective was to bring special cases into the framework of a general philosophy of lan-
guage.௘125 In the comparativism of Schlegel and Humboldt, the line between setting up
typology and searching for genealogies was not unwavering. Conversely, Bopp gave
up on trying to resolve the issue of the origin of all languages: focusing on a single
linguistic family, he brought the historical approach down to comparing morphologi-
cal segments on the axis of time, distinguishing between new and constant elements.
This is where he mostly diverged from his elders, for this practice of linguistic history
prompted him to lead his research on language independently from any consideration
concerning the history of the human mind or the relationships between peoples.
In relation to the knowledge project that had been so central to the Enlightenment
and that Schlegel had taken over in a romantic sense, there is a noticeable shift in the
use Bopp made of the vocabulary stemming from the sciences of nature. Like Schle-
gel and Humboldt, he carried out recurrent analogies between the subjects studied by
and the methods of the linguist on the one hand and the naturalist on the other, using
such terms as “anatomical analysis”, “chemical decomposition”, “physiology”,௘126 and
especially likening language to an “organism”.௘127 Still, he apprehended these terms
in a sense that was quite different from the two other authors. In Schlegel’s work,
the notion of “organism” designated, ¿rst and foremost, inÀectional languages that
develop from the modulations of the “living seeds” that constitute their roots. It is
therefore a vital principle that updates itself in relation to the faculties of the human
mind – since Schlegel thought that languages developed differently depending on the
peoples involved.
Humboldt also used organicist vocabulary in his works on languages. Like Schlegel,
he used “organism” to designate language, in that it responds to a vital principle. Yet
expressed by Humboldt, who at any rate refused to conceive the existence of an origi-
nal language that would be the recipient of a primary truth, the notion of “organism”
applied to all languages and was no longer considered in terms of an “organic quality”
speci¿c to a special group of languages. It rather pointed to the fact that all languages
are a distinctive creation stemming from the very essence of language.௘128 In this way,
the “organism” of a language corresponds to its grammatical structure, which should be
thoroughly examined in order to show the diversity of the linguistic fact; it should lead,
in ¿ne, to a philosophy of language that would have to take into account the impact of
linguistic diversity on the various interpretations and visions of the world. This is why
Humboldt chose to envisage linguistic analysis on the model of physiology rather than
anatomy, since the latter focuses on static forms and thus omits the dynamics at work
in the construction of language.

125 B. Delbrück, Einleitung in das Studium der indogermanischen Sprachen. Ein Beitrag zur Ge-
schichte und Methodik der vergleichenden Sprachforschung von B. Delbrück, Leipzig 1919,
p. 71.
126 Ibid., p. 72.
127 For instance, in the preface to the Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen,
Lateinischen, Litthauischen, Gothischen und Deutschen, Berlin 1833, book I.
128 J. Trabant, Traditionen Humboldts, Frankfurt am Main 1990, p. 34–49.

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A Sanskrit Revolution? 65

Bopp’s position represented a third stance. There was a point in common con-
necting the three authors: the notion of a vital principle determining the formation of
languages. Yet Bopp refused to envisage language as the product of the human mind,
be it on Schlegel’s or Humboldt’s models. He chose to apprehend it independently
from its speakers, according to intrinsic logics. Consequently, in his work the function
ful¿lled by the naturalist vocabulary was more of the order of the metaphor than the
analogy. He mainly used this vocabulary to emphasise the fact that languages, contrary
to what Schlegel had said about them, do not go from an initial state of perfection to
deterioration, but “must be considered as natural organic bodies that take form accord-
ing to precise laws and – since they have an internal life principle – develop and then
gradually decline.”௘129 The dream of original perfection was thus shattered, for in their
primary state languages are characterised by their morphological simplicity;௘130 they
do not reach a complex mode of formation until much later, before declining. What
mattered to Bopp were no longer the Romantic issues of man’s relations to the world,
but rather the logics of the linguistic system.
In Germany, starting in the early 19th century the central role that Sanskrit was be-
ginning to play in the studies on man and language resulted more from a re-discovery
than from a pure and simple discovery. If there was a “Sanskrit revolution”, it was
in the sense that all the material conditions were there to pass on long-accumulated
materials to an educated public, and that these materials started to make sense in re-
lation to already existing questions. Characterising these transformations as an “Ori-
ental Renaissance” rubs out their heterogeneity to the bene¿t of a common rooting
in Romanticism. Yet conversely, one can consider that Sanskrit crystallised the fault
lines of Romanticism better than any other subject. Indeed, Romanticism was caught
in-between the dry rationalism of the Aufklärung and the triumphant positivism of the
19th century. Furthermore, it was struggling in its own contradictions between desire
for the absolute and the awareness (precisely honed by Sanskrit) that this desire could
be satis¿ed only by way of the empirical approach. It was precisely by making posi-
tivism a principled position and no longer a temporary tool that Bopp invalidated the
representation of the Sanskrit language as the mother of Latin, Greek and German. In
doing so, he also separated the linguistic perspective from the anthropological one,
which consisted in identifying kinships of peoples: “I give the name Indo-European
to the family of languages whose most important members are gathered into one
corpus in the present book […]. I cannot approve of the expression ‘Indo-Germanic’,
because I don’t see why one should consider the Germans as the representatives of all
the peoples on our continent.”௘131

129 Translation by S. Auroux/G. Bernard/J. Boulle, Le développement du comparatisme indo-euro-

péen, in: S. Auroux, Histoire des idées linguistiques, book III, p. 159.
130 For a long time, Bopp hardly took phonology into consideration, considering that it was “ar-
bitrary”, “accidental” and “confusing”. Yet his position was to change as his work went along,
leading him to identify Wohllautregeln, named Wohllautgesetze later on, and ¿nally end up with
Lautgesetze; see Desmet/Swiggers, p. 155–156.
131 Fr. Bopp, Grammaire comparée, translation by M. Bréal, Paris 1966, book I, p. 21.

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66 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Coined by the Briton Thomas Young,௘132 the term “Indo-European” enabled Bopp to
name the linguistic family according to both ends of the territory covered by the lan-
guages that made it up. This geographical denomination thwarted the revanchist trend
that consisted in pushing German to the fore in comparison to the other languages in
this group. Providing serious scienti¿c foundations to the study of Sanskrit appeared
as the only means to impose it as a full-Àedged discipline: Schlegel’s aborted attempt
to regenerate scienti¿c practice by studying Sanskrit in a philosophical perspective
had been proof enough that this study was more likely to conform to existing rules
than to disrupt them.

132 F. R. Shapiro, On the Origin of the Term “Indo-Germanic”, Historiographia linguistica, VIII/1,
Amsterdam, p. 165–170. The term “Indo-Germanic” was used for the ¿rst time by Conrad Malte-
Brun in the second volume of his Précis de la géographie universelle, published in Paris in 1810;
it was made popular under its German form (indogermanisch) by the linguist Julius Klaproth
who used it in his book entitled Asia Polyglotta (1823).

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism?

In order to see the study of Indian literature blossoming,

it is imperative that the principles of classical philology
be fully applied to it, and with the strictest scienti¿c
A. W. Schlegel, Über den gegenwärtigen
Stand der indischen Philologie, 1820௘1

In the ¿rst decades of the 19th century, German universities were radically changing:
the corporatist, somewhat static organisation that had been the rule for many centuries
had had its days. Far from the questioning and decline they had experienced during
the 18th century,௘2 universities now intended to concentrate most of the country’s sci-
enti¿c activity inside their walls. The era of Privatgelehrten – isolated scholars – was
well in the past, and the inÀuence of Academies on scienti¿c life had considerably
decreased as compared to the preceding century. Creating university chairs was there-
fore more than ever a decisive point in order to acquire the status of being a scienti¿c
In the reorganisation of universities, the hierarchy of their disciplines had under-
gone a deep mutation. Henceforth it was philology, and no longer theology, that was
the prize subject. It had asserted this status after creating a twofold commotion: elabo-
rating sophisticated methods and demonstrating its intrinsic usefulness, independently
from the use made of it in Bible study. As a result of its new hegemony, philology –
now called “classic” in reference to the fact that it mainly focused on the Greek and
Roman worlds – had normative authority. This was sanctioned by the determination of
those who were reforming university to give pride of place to Greek culture in Educa-
tion, thus renewing with the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance. The supporters of
Sanskrit studies therefore had to attest that their methods and criteria of scienti¿city
perfectly matched the canon of classical studies. Yet this imperative called for a pre-
requisite: the acknowledgement that Indian culture could have a function equivalent
to that of Greece. It therefore remained to demonstrate that the study of ancient Indian
languages and texts could ¿t within the framework of a “humanistic” education.

1 A. W. Schlegel, Über den gegenwärtigen Stand, p. 22.

2 Leibniz thought that science no longer had a place at university but should rather be taught in
academies and erudite societies.

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68 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Philology, Theology, Orientalism: Intertwined Evolutions

The Formation of the Exegetic Tradition

In the Renaissance, the recently-opened access to the original texts of the Ancients
made Antiquity appear as the source of culture. With a view to return to authentic
sources, humanism gave rise to philological concern in the modern sense: scientists
found it important to restore texts to the form closest to their original shape, and to draw
from them the most accurate interpretation. As humanism was spreading throughout
Europe, the area of application of philological methods experienced change. Philologi-
cal practice became a major instrument to study the Bible. The idea was to correct the
Latin Vulgate, which was accepted as authoritative in Europe, by comparing it with
the Hebrew original and the Greek translation of the Septuagint.௘3 Further perfected in
its critical dimension (emendation, collation) by Dutch scientists, philology presented
itself as the ideal auxiliary in many areas of knowledge.
In Germany, philology experienced the same allegiance; “polyhistorical practice”
brought it down to the status of being servant to the major academic disciplines that
were medicine, law and theology. Among these three ¿elds of study, it was theology
that held the closest links with philology. Indeed, while humanist re-readings of the
Bible were underway, the Reform was taking shape in Germany and it had a far more
radical character. The concern for the letter of the Biblical text and the confrontation
of its Greek, Latin and Hebrew versions were founding elements of the Protestant ex-
egesis tradition. This tradition had the effect of restraining Orientalism to the languages
that were of use to Bible study (Arab as a prerequisite for learning Hebrew, as well as
Biblical languages: Chaldean, Aramaic and Syriac). The languages and literary pro-
ductions of the modern Orient were not deemed worthy of consideration by scholars.௘4
They were not studied with the purpose of communicating: Orientalism exclusively
took on the shape of Altorientalistik, or “study of the languages of the Ancient Orient”
and primarily developed amongst Protestant universities where its was mainly a foun-
dation course before studying theology.௘5 In the mid 18th century, both philology and
the study of Oriental languages still served as the common cornerstone in the education
of future ministers and neither one existed on its own.
In German society, where social importance was measured in terms of the scope
of knowledge of individuals rather than their level of specialised competences, the
dividing line between professional training and general culture tended to become
blurred.௘6 This situation was particularly harmful for the Faculty of Philosophy, which

3 Johannes Reuchlin’s De rudimentis hebraicis (1506) aimed at enabling the general public to have
access to the Bible in Hebrew; in 1516, Erasmus of Rotterdam put out a corrected version of the
New Testament (Novum Testamentum).
4 This also applies to all the vernacular languages of Europe at that time.
5 Of course, missionary interest also accounts for the impetus given to Oriental studies by theology.
6 S. R. Turner, The Prussian Professoriate and the Research Imperative 1740–1840, in: H. N. Jahnke/
M. Otte (ed.), Epistemological and Social Problems of the Sciences in the Early Nineteenth Cen-
tury, Dordrecht/Boston/London 1981, p. 113.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 69

was brought down to the rank of an “inferior faculty” (untere Fakultät) supposed to
prepare students to enter one of the three other faculties, described as “professional”
(Berufsfakultäten) or “superior” (Oberfakultäten). It was not only philosophy that was
taught in the Faculty of Philosophy, but also such general subjects as history, philol-
ogy, natural and physical sciences and mathematics. As it did not lead to any particu-
lar profession, in the 18th century students gradually lost interest in it and many of
them chose to directly enrol in the “superior faculties”;௘7 its disciplines were thus even
more discredited. This is true of both philology and Oriental languages; indeed, all the
teaching chairs that every German university had devoted to them for a very long time
(since the 16th century for some of them) now came under the faculties of philosophy,
with the exception of Heidelberg and Würzburg, where they were directly linked to
the faculty of theology.௘8 This is how theology – which, starting in the Reform, had
exerted such a fundamental role in the Àourishing of philological techniques and the
knowledge of Oriental languages – henceforth acted as a brake for these two domains.
Formerly an area of intense intellectual activity, it greatly drifted towards orthodoxy
in both the Catholic and Protestant universities.௘9
Lacking this primary stimulation, philology as an instrument hardly evolved any
longer; since the study of Antiquity was still not considered as an end in itself, the way
to approach Ancient texts amounted to technical comments on rhetoric and grammar,
line by line. The same situation could be found in the domain of Oriental languages.
The number of languages learnt was limited and the corpus of studied texts generally
boiled down to the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature and, to a lesser extent, the Koran.
Neither knowledge nor learning techniques experienced palpable improvements and
the grammars and lexicons in use in the early 19th century were still the same as in
the preceding periods.௘10

7 One should, however, distinguish between the “Catholic” model of Southern Germany and the
“Protestant” one in the north. In the ¿rst instance, students could not bypass the obligation of
studying for two years in the generalist untere Fakultäten or, as an alternative solution, in a
Lyzeum, a place headed by a bishop where Catholic priests were trained before joining one of the
Obere Fakultäten. In the second case, notably represented by the universities of Göttingen and
Halle, students were also expected to go through the untere Fakultäten before enrolling in one
of the obere (Berufs-) Fakultäten. Yet in reality they often spared themselves the trouble. In the
north as well as in the south, the faculties of philosophy (then called Kunstfakultäten, faculties
of art) suffered from the competition of both the Jesuits’ Latinum and the Ritterakademien, the
institutions initially created for the nobility, directed towards more “society-oriented” knowledge.
Therefore, they were not clearly distinguished from the secondary education taught in “erudite
schools” (Gelehrtenschulen). See S. R. Turner, Universitäten, in: K. E. Jeismann/P. Lundgreen
(ed.), Handbuch der deutschen Bildungsgeschichte, vol. III: Ch. Berg (ed.), 1800–1870. Von der
Neuordnung Deutschlands bis zur Gründung des Deutschen Reiches, Munich 1987, p. 230–231;
C. McClelland, State, Society and University in Germany, 1700–1914, Cambridge/London/New
York 1980, p. 33.
8 In the late 18th century, only the Greifswald University did not bear the mention of an Oriental
language chair (Mangold, p. 117).
9 McClelland, p. 30.
10 Mangold, p. 30.

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70 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Towards non-Biblical Orientalist Philology

Nevertheless, since the middle of the 18th century some evolutions had affected phi-
lology as well as Oriental languages. Although this movement was at ¿rst limited to
some rare universities, there were philologists who worked at giving consistency and
dignity to the study of Antiquity. Lectures retained a very traditional form, as the elo-
quence teachers who were generally in charge of them often contented themselves with
explaining ancient texts in a linear fashion based on already existing commentaries.
Yet in parallel, philological seminars were set up with the purpose of passing on to stu-
dents not only the content of commentaries, but the method to achieve them. This was
done with a view to train future teachers.௘11 Ironically, this innovation, which justi¿ed
the existence of philology independently from theology, was a direct imitation of the
age-old practice of theological seminars.௘12 The ¿rst steps towards modernising philol-
ogy were chieÀy taken by Georg Forster’s father-in-law: Christian Gottlob Heyne. As
the holder of a chair of eloquence and poetry in Göttingen since 1763, and as the direc-
tor of the philology seminar, he took advantage of his of¿ce in order to introduce the
study of Antiquity in the institutional framework of university. He also organised it in
a systematic fashion, gathering the various disciplines dealing with historical subjects,
so that together they served the knowledge of Antiquity as a whole.௘13
There again, the heritage of Biblical exegesis was quite important, for Heyne’s
method came down to transposing the methods already put at the service of Bible
study by philology to ancient history and archaeology, i. e. using these texts to be ac-
quainted with and to analyse the mores, mythical representations, religion and history
of Antiquity.
While Heyne resolutely asserted that the study of Antiquity was of interest in itself,
he remained convinced that a mere curriculum in philology, independent from other
studies – and notably theology – could not lead one to a professional career. Rooted
in the Lutheran tradition, he knew Greek and Hebrew and also integrated the Orient
into his works. He was not looking to establish the autonomy of philology at an insti-
tutional level.
It was up to his student Friedrich August Wolf to work for the emancipation of
philology. A teacher of pedagogy and philosophy in Halle since 1763, he created a
philological seminar in 1787, with the ¿rm intention of “separating the position of
teacher from that of pastor”,௘14 even refusing to take in theology students. As early as
1785, in a course whose name was quite revealing – “The Encyclopaedia of the Science

11 W. Erben, Die Entstehung der Universitätsseminare, Internationale Monatsschrift für Wissen-

schaft, Kunst und Technik, vol. VII, 1913, col. 1247–1264.
12 A. Grafton, De Polyhistor en philologue, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 135, 2000,
p. 27.
13 M. Vöhler, Christian Gottlob Heyne und das Studium des Altertums in Deutschland, in: G. W.
Most (ed.), Disciplining Classics – Altertumswissenschaft als Beruf, Göttingen 2002, p. 39–54.
14 Quoted in Erben, col. 1256. The seminar was to last until 1806, the date when the Halle University
was closed down following the Napoleonic wars.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 71

of Antiquity” (Vorlesung über die Encyclopädie der Alterthumswissenschaft௘ 15) – he

had laid out the programme that he assigned to philological practice. Extending far
beyond the traditional framework of philology, Wolf, following Heyne, chose to take
an interest in all aspects of Antiquity. He understood the “science of Antiquity” as
the articulation linking three elements: grammar, text critique and hermeneutics. The
latter had a crucial place, since Wolf de¿ned it as the art of “understanding an author
and, consequently, the thoughts that a third party expressed in writing or even simply
orally, in the exact fashion he would like them to be understood.” In raising this ap-
proach – already claimed by Heyne before him – to the rank of hermeneutic principle,
Wolf was looking to study textual facts according to their own context, and from there
to draw elements on the way of life at the time.௘16 He therefore devoted much room
to ethnographic and historical dimensions. To him, philology was “the incarnation of
the historical and philosophical knowledge that enables us to get acquainted with the
nations of the Ancient world (or Antiquity), in their most diverse aspects, based on the
works that have reached us”.௘17 Now, examining the book Wolf devoted to Homer in
1798, which gave rise to considerable scienti¿c dispute, Anthony Grafton has shown
in detail the originality of Wolf’s method. It mainly resides in the way he combined
this hermeneutic with the philological critique methods of the Orientalist theologian
Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, who dealt with the Old Testament as a historical text from
which ethnographic information could be drawn. To that end, he analysed the varia-
tions of style and written form in order to then date the various passages of the text.௘18
Neither the hermeneutic nor the critical method used by Wolf were therefore totally
new. Yet he managed to present his method in such a clear style and with such empha-
sis on his own contribution, that his Prolegomena ad Homerum became the reference
of philologists in search of credibility for their discipline. They also functioned as a
model in various other domains including, in return, theology.
In the case of Oriental languages, the issue of the relation to theology was even
more delicate to solve; even though they were included in the faculties of philosophy,

15 This lecture was published in 1831, after Wolf’s death.

16 K. H. Stierle, Altertumswissenschaftliche Hermeneutik und die Entstehung der Neuphilologie, in:
Flashar/Gründer/Horstmann, p. 267–268. There are also, in Wolf’s work, traces of Friedrich Ast’s
hermeneutic conception, which is that a literary monument reÀects the spirit of its time; therefore,
interpreting it makes it possible to grasp, beyond the studied subject, elements about its context,
while on the other hand one can only understand a literary monument if he already knows its
17 Quoted in A. Horstmann, Philologie, in: K. Gründer/J. Ritter (ed.), Historisches Wörterbuch der
Philosophie, vol. 7, Basel 1989, p. 562.
18 Eichhorn, himself a student of Heyne and Michaelis, was naturally reliant on his masters in this
approach, which he applied in 1780 in his Einleitung ins Alte Testament: like Michaelis, he was
convinced that the Masoretes (the Jewish grammarians) had modi¿ed the Biblical text as early as
the 1st millennium of our era, and he tried to study the Masoretic text according to the principle
of immersion into the spirit of the time, as had been de¿ned by Heyne. See A. Grafton, Introduc-
tion, in: Fr. A. Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum, Princeton 1985 [Re-edition of the original text
from 1795], p. 20–26.

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72 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

they were taught by theologians. Despite all this, at the moment when philology gradu-
ally acquired its autonomous existence, the teaching of these languages underwent a
major reorientation spurred by non-professionals.௘19 Owing to the development of trade
and the growing number of publications of travel stories, contacts between the Orient
and Occident multiplied during the Aufklärung. The translation of One Thousand and
One Nights published between 1704 and 1717 by the Frenchman Antoine Galland, a
teacher of Arabic at the Collège de France, enjoyed great success in Europe. It gave
another image of the Orient than the homeland of the Old Testament, which had until
then been presented to the public. The very fact of translating a secular text was also
signi¿cant. This initiative was taken up in Germany by the self-taught Orientalist
Johann Jacob Reiske, who provided translations of Arabic poetry and annals of Arab
history, totally excluding Bible exegesis from his concerns. His purpose, which was
to enrich the history of mankind by including its Oriental portion, was acclaimed by
such philosophers as Herder. Yet his rejection of Biblical philology (philologia sacra)
ruled him out from any university career.௘20 Clearly, Oriental languages were still too
strongly rooted in a theological perspective to leave room for secular Orientalism.
This situation also resulted from the scarcity of political or commercial links be-
tween Germany and the Orient. In France, on the other hand, the authorities showed
a de¿nite desire to develop a sphere of inÀuence in the Mediterranean region as well
as in India, where the British had the upper hand. In the late 17th century, this inter-
est for the Barbary (the Maghreb) and the Levant (the Ottoman Empire, or ‘Sublime
Gate’) had notably led Colbert to create the Ecole des Jeunes de langues whose mission
was to train royal interpreters.௘21 As opposed to what took place in Germany, secular
Orientalism was as much, if not more, established than Orientalism for the purpose of
exegesis, and the Modern Orient languages had been amongst available courses for
a long time. Even such a place of erudition as the Collège de France had, at an early
stage, enjoyed chairs in ancient and modern Oriental languages. This was done in ac-
cordance with the spirit of this institution founded in the 16th century by François 1er
in order to provide a place for the production of knowledge, freed from the scholastic
tutelage of the Sorbonne. However, Oriental languages had progressively fallen into
disuse at the Collège de France, and the establishment of the Jeunes de langues had
also trailed off, until it was interrupted by the French Revolution. Now, at a time when
German scientists were reÀecting on the opportunity to take modern Oriental languages
into account, the teaching of these languages experienced a second wind in France.
Indeed, in 1795, during the Convention, a school of Oriental studies was created (Ecole
spéciale des langues orientales vivantes), devoted to the languages deemed useful for
trade and politics (Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Malay and Tatar).
Despite these pragmatic objectives, from the beginning the Ecole tended towards
more scienti¿c concerns, at the instigation of its successive directors, Louis-Matthieu

19 Mangold, p. 31–64.
20 Ibid., p. 31–33.
21 D. Reig, Homo orientaliste. La langue arabe en France depuis le XIXe siècle, Paris 1988, p. 65–66.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 73

Langlès and Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy. The latter especially, who taught Arabic,
had not learnt it to become an interpreter, but solely because of his inclination towards
the Arab language, history and literature – and this he did uniquely from books. His
knowledge of Oriental languages did not limit itself to Arabic. In 1805 he became the
holder of the chair of Persian at the Collège de France. Across the Rhine, he enjoyed
undisputed prestige as a philologist. The greatest names of German Orientalist philol-
ogy were corresponding with him, among them Johann David Michaelis and J. G. Eich-
horn. Around 1810, a growing number of Orientalist students from Germany started
to go to Paris to be trained in de Sacy’s school.௘22
Such intense exchanges could but encourage growing interest for the non-Biblical
Orient in Germany. Along with the inÀuence of the spirit of Enlightenment, the emu-
lation arising from Bonaparte’s expedition in Egypt in 1798–1799 and the increasing
material available for study after that expedition, the works by Silvestre de Sacy must
have been instrumental in the initiatives taken by certain German Orientalists who
worked outside of the academic framework. In 1809, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall,
an interpreter in Oriental languages at the Imperial Court of Vienna, founded a journal
entitled Fundgruben des Orients (Treasure Houses of the Orient). It featured articles
written by scientists from various European countries on all known Oriental languages
and all subjects regarding the Orient (geography, philology, linguistics, history etc).
Not only was Hammer-Purgstall amongst Silvestre de Sacy’s correspondents, but he
regularly evoked the tutelary ¿gure of the French Orientalist in his journal whenever
there was a matter of justifying his approach of Oriental languages.௘23

Sanskrit, a New Oriental Subject

Amongst Oriental languages, there were some, such as Arabic, which already enjoyed
teaching chairs in universities; the challenge that was posed was to modify their con-
tent so that its value could be independent from the theological use that might have
been made of it. As for the languages that were not – or little – taught, such as Turkish,
their links (be they geographical, historical or linguistic) with other languages already
present at university made it possible to bring them into the common group of Orien-
talistik.௘24 In the case of Sanskrit, the situation was totally different. Not only was there
no chair, but the demonstration of the kinship of Sanskrit with European languages also
made it a very particular subject.௘25 Moreover, traditional Orientalism could not abruptly

22 Reig has listed them, p. 106–107. Also see H. Dehérain, Silvestre de Sacy: ses contemporains et
ses disciples, Paris 1938; M. Espagne, Un Orient franco-allemand: les correspondants de Silvestre
de Sacy, in: M. Godé/M. Grunewald (ed.), Hommage à Roland Krebs, Bern 2005, p. 459–475.
Bopp and both the Schlegels were amongst those who attended his lectures.
23 Mangold, p. 51.
24 This, at least, until the multiplication of the domains of Orientalism led to acknowledging spe-
cialisation; this was done by creating distinct chairs, notably in Egyptology and Assyriology.
25 Persian was also acknowledged as an Indo-European language. However, the fact that it had been
known for long and always considered as an Oriental language on the same level as Arabic and
Turkish restricted the issue of its identi¿cation with Orientalism. India was, admittedly, under

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74 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

break its age-old dependency vis-à-vis theology: the strategy was to extend rather than
question its domain and to add the study of secular Orient to that of Biblical Orient.
Orientalism became all the more suspicious as soon as it moved too far away from
the refuge of theology. On these topics, the situation of Sanskrit was different as well.
While traditional Orientalism was exercised by Protestant theologians submitting the
Bible to philosophical critique, Fr. Schlegel, far from questioning the dogma, sought
in the Orient traces of the veracity of the Revelation. In order to succeed in inserting
Sanskrit studies in the institutional framework of university, it seemed necessary to
take a distance from this type of approach and to demonstrate the secular character of
these studies, i. e. their strictly scienti¿c nature.

The Implications of Prussian Neo-Humanism

Prussia in the Era of University Reforms

Under the aegis of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was Minister of Education between
February 1809 and July 1810, university reforms were undertaken in Prussia. Admit-
tedly, they involved in-depth institutional restructuring, yet contrary to a widespread
idea they mainly consisted in systematising and deepening the progress of scienti¿c
activity achieved since the 18th century, so that it would bear fruit. This was notably
achieved by developing seminars in philology.௘26 Classical philology was to play an
important role in these reforms, which were made necessary by an increasing number
of criticisms vis-à-vis the university around 1800. Indeed, it was accused of dispens-
ing teachings as rigid as the scholastic ones of the Middle Ages, even though the
Aufklärung attempted to promote living forms of communication.
The Napoleonic wars provided an opportunity to rethink the distribution of univer-
sities in the various German states. Of the 35 universities inventoried in 1789, only 18
were left at the end of this troubled period; to these should be added the newly-created
University of Berlin (1810) as well as that of Bonn (1818), which stemmed from the
re-creation of the former University of the Rhine.௘27 This university upheaval called for
a deeper reform than a simple territorial reorganisation. It is true that certain voices
were raised in favour of purely and simply eliminating universities, and in certain
states sovereigns reacted to the French revolution by categorically refusing any reform.

Mughal domination, yet the Empire thus formed represented a political and geographic entity
quite distinct from the Ottoman world. Although owing to limited ¿nancial means, at the start
Sanskrit was taught in the chairs of general Orientalism, it was dissociated from it in the follow-
ing decade.
26 Grafton, De polyhistor en philologue; McClelland, p. 63.
27 Turner, The Prussian Professoriate, p. 222. The Berlin University was created to make up for the
loss of the only large university in Prussia, that of Halle, given up to Westphalia following the
Tilsit Treaty (1807). Once the region of Halle became Prussian again in 1815, Prussia re-estab-
lished its university (1817) under the name “Vereinigte Friedrichs-Universität Halle Wittenberg”.
The University of Bonn, which had disappeared under Napoleon, was re-created by the Prussian
government in order to win the favour of the new Rhine province.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 75

Nevertheless, there was a growing movement in favour of reorganising universities

around the Bildung concept, to be understood in its double meaning of “culture” and
“training”. It was a matter of working to increase academic freedom for both students
(Lernfreiheit – freedom to learn) and teachers (Lehrfreiheit – freedom to teach).
This determination to mark the speci¿city of a university-type education conceived
as a place for producing as much as receiving knowledge, led to a stricter separation
between the study levels. In order to enter university, it became compulsory to pass the
Abitur, a state-organised examination which only Gymnasien, the secondary schools
providing classical training, were authorised to deliver. This examination took the
shape of Greek translations and both written and oral tests in Latin. Such a measure
therefore required that all students follow an in-depth degree course in Latin and Greek.
Consequently, classical studies were at the heart of the educational system. The in-
creased and standardised skills demanded of Gymnasien teachers henceforth granted
the Faculty of Philosophy a professionalizing function (with pedagogical training)
similar to the role of the Faculty of Theology for ministers.
This reform was ¿rst carried out in Prussia between 1803 and 1819. Its major
symbol was Humboldt’s founding of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin in
1810. Rather than a uniform and precisely datable movement, this reform consisted
of an ensemble of successive measures taken at various times and with various op-
tions according to the universities concerned. Nevertheless, at the end of a period of
relative confusion, which lasted until 1840, the ideal advocated by Prussian reformers
started to spread throughout the whole of Germany (before the Prussian model de¿-
nitely asserted itself with the foundation of the Empire in 1866). Since the writings
of Johann Joachim Winckelmann on Ancient Greek art – which exalted the plainness
and simplicity of Greek sculpture and the vital importance given to representing ideas
rather than faithfully imitating reality – a strong philhellenic current had developed in
Germany. Winckelmann’s aesthetic theories were also aimed against the aristocratism
of Baroque art and the domination of French taste on Germany’s artistic life. Greece
ful¿lled a role of identi¿cation for the Germans, against France and Rome. Further-
more, looking at the Greek world – considered as incarnating nature and freedom – was
supposed to enable men to free themselves from the mechanical and utilitarian logics
of the modern world.௘28 Under the inÀuence of the French revolution and the Napole-
onic campaigns in Germany, philhellenism took the shape of a nationalistic reaction
against the Latin world. This can be seen in the comparison that was then often made
between the German states and the Athenian Empire, defeated by arms yet remaining
united in its language and culture.௘29
In any case, Greece retained its referential and normative function. Humboldt con-
sidered the individual as a living entity both unachieved and capable of improvement;
the aim he therefore assigned to education was to enable everyone to be ful¿lled in their

28 Marchand, p. 7–16.
29 Ibid., p. 24; W. Voßkamp, Bildung als Synthese, in: J. Fohrmann/W. Voßkamp (ed.), Wissen-
schaftsgeschichte der Germanistik im 19. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart/Weimar 1994, p. 19.

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76 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

whole being, i. e. to improve all their qualities.௘30 Consequently, education was not so
much supposed to deliver contents of knowledge as to provide models for development.
According to Humboldt, the simple fact of studying a culture characterised by its full,
harmonious development suf¿ced to act in return upon the person who was undertak-
ing such study. Now, Greece was the place of wholeness and harmony par excellence
in opposition to the modern world – which, owing to excessive specialisation, led
man to only ful¿l a part of himself. In Humboldt‘s eyes, the Greeks were “not only a
people it is useful to get to know from a historical point of view, but also an ideal”.௘31
Greece therefore became a central reference to achieve Bildung. As for the manner in
which this programme could be implemented in universities, Friedrich August Wolf’s
inÀuence was decisive. This philologist from Halle and close friend of Humboldt’s
was appointed to Berlin University at the time of its foundation. He imposed the idea
that Greek culture required to be studied with all the rigour of philological methods.
In practice, Bildung took the shape of a thorough analysis of classical texts considered
as historical creations and no longer as mere sources from which to draw rhetorical
anthologies. Philology provided the Bildung material while at the same time it was
already Bildung in action.
These early 19th century Prussian reforms fell resolutely into the banner of Göt-
tingen and Halle’s neo-humanism. Wolf thought that it was imperative for those who
represented the science of Antiquity to bene¿t from solid training, and he strictly
denied all amateurs access to this ¿eld of knowledge. Adopting the Altertumswissen-
schaft as the archetype of university training, the reformers were brought to give as
much space to science (Wissenschaft) as to culture (Kultur). Hence the famous double
necessity formulated by Humboldt, according to which university was to be not only a
place of teaching but also a place of scienti¿c production (“lehren und forschen”). To
have science and culture coexisting did not seem like a small matter. With its multiple
branches – historical, ethnographical etc – the science of Antiquity as practiced by
Wolf did make it possible to cultivate plural competences – the Vielseitigkeit dear to
Humboldt. Yet, the demands of a scienti¿c approach contained the seeds of increasing
specialisation in philological activity, which was destined to become a matter for ex-
perts. Therefore, viewed in the light of the reform, the question of knowing what place
there could be for Sanskrit in academic studies called for an ambiguous answer. On
the one hand, “academic freedom” theoretically provided space to insert new domains
in university education. On the other hand, the emergence of increasingly specialised
scienti¿c practices within Greek philology gave it an unquestionable methodological

30 “The true goal of man is to develop his faculties to the highest level and in the well-proportioned
way, so that it forms a whole.” (quoted in W. Voßkamp, La Bildung dans la tradition de la pensée
utopique, in: M. Espagne/M. Werner [ed.], Philologiques, vol. 1: Contribution à l’histoire des
disciplines littéraires en France et en Allemagne au XIXe siècle, Paris 1990, p. 53).
31 Quoted in M. Baumbach, Lehrer oder Gelehrter? Der Schulmann in der deutschen Altertums-
wissenschaft des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts, in: G. W. Most (ed.), Disciplining Classics,
p. 116.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 77

advance, at the same time reinforcing its hegemonic situation and making it a com-
pulsory reference for other sciences.

The Reluctance of Classical Philologists

Those in favour of classical philology were not exactly inclined to promote the emer-
gence of Sanskrit studies. Not only did they want to maintain the predominance of their
own study subject, i. e. the Greek world, over the competition of any other culture, but
they had a negative view of the Indian world. This was also the case with the elderly
philologist Heyne, although he was open to cultural regions other than Ancient Greece
and just as willing as his son-in-law Georg Forster to include Jewish and Indian culture
into the classical world. Albeit the enthusiasm he displayed when he read Forster’s
Sakontala, the review he wrote of this book for the Göttingische Anzeigen von Gelehr-
ten Sachen in 1791 did express reservations.௘32 While he was delighted at the play’s
“national” character and showed his curiosity for the speci¿city of Indian culture, he
delivered a rather critical analysis of the traits of social organisation that he thought
were rising to the surface. His review featured the stereotypes of the Enlightenment
discourse on the Orient: Oriental despotism, which he thought was personi¿ed in the
character of King Dushmanta, as well as the tyranny and resistance to change of the
caste system, which embodied the persistent domination of priests on the entire society.
Heyne’s attitude concerning India was marked by a tension between interest in
principle for foreign culture and reserve towards its content. The same factors explain
his restrained reaction to Schlegel’s Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier. He
favourably viewed the fact that Schlegel – who had been his student and whose herme-
neutic method still bore traces of his teachings – had learnt the ancient Indian language
in order to have direct access to writings. Yet he published a rather doubtful piece in
the Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen.௘33 This tone can be partly explained by Heyne’s
perplexity vis-à-vis subjects on which he had to admit to his incompetence, such as
the kinship and even more so the descent from Sanskrit of European languages. He
emphasized that he could not be a judge while expressing his doubts as to Schlegel’s
linguistic method, which he deemed as still overly guided by intuition. This perplex-
ity turned into true scepticism as soon as it concerned the link established by Schlegel
between Indian culture and the origins of mankind. Heyne especially attacked what he
considered the speculative nature of the presuppositions on which Schlegel claimed
to base his analysis of Indian philosophy. This particularly concerned the postulate of
an originally clear Revelation. Heyne made sure to pick out that the view of history as
championed by Schlegel, i. e. an accumulation of errors that have come to darken the
original brightness, strongly conÀicted with the idea that the progressive development

32 C. G. Heyne, Sakontala, oder der entscheidende Ring, ein indisches Schauspiel von Kalidas,
Göttingische Anzeigen von Gelehrten Sachen, 100. Stück, June 23, 1791, p. 1002–1008, here
p. 1003.
33 C. G. Heyne, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, 98.
Stück, June 18, 1808, p. 969–979.

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78 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

of civilisation had enabled man to get out of the sate of crudeness and error that was his
originally. Heyne’s reservations about Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier can
therefore be read as the Enlightenment philosopher’s opposition to his former student
developing a Catholic, romantic and reactionary line of thinking.
It was in the person of Friedrich August Wolf that the supporters of Sanskrit study
met one of their most adamant opponents. This was an attitude he did not reserve to
India but adopted towards the whole Oriental world. Contrary to Heyne – who, on
principle, was not opposed to comparing Greece and India and who vowed profound
respect to Indian poetry – Wolf assigned very narrow limits to the science of Antiq-
uity, reserving it to the sole Greco-Roman world. In 1807, in his Darstellung der
Alterthumswissenschaft nach Begriff, Umfang, Zweck und Wert (Presentation of the
science of antiquity: de¿nition, extent, objective and values) he said the following of
the different peoples of Antiquity:
One would like to include all these peoples in the same knowledge, yet all
sorts of reasons make it necessary to separate them and do not enable us to
put Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians and other nations of the Orient on the same
level as the Greeks and Romans. One of the main differences between these
two groups of nations is that the former hardly, if at all, rose above the kind of
education [Bildung] that should be called acquiring the polished behaviour of
citizens, i. e. civilisation [Civilisation], as opposed to a true, and much higher,
intellectual culture [Geistescultur].௘34
He excluded Oriental peoples from his studies on the grounds that they had not reached
a degree of civilisation comparable with the Greeks and Romans. Making his own the
distinction established by the Ancients between themselves and the rest of the world,
considered as Barbarian, he went as far as denying Oriental peoples their belonging
to the world of Antiquity: “it will even be admitted to reserve the name of Antiquity,
in its exclusive accepted meaning, to the two peoples that attained re¿nement through
their intellectual culture, their erudition and their art,”௘35 i. e. the Greeks and Romans.
Since philologists were supposed to deal with the “science of Antiquity” and since
Oriental peoples were not part of Antiquity – henceforth taken as a cultural category
and no longer simply as an era – it was logical that the study of Oriental cultures could
not be amongst the concerns of philologists. It was to be reserved to Orientalists, who
were therefore excluded from the “philologist” category.
Naturally Fr. Schlegel, who considered that studying the Sanskrit language was the
necessary complement to the works of the Renaissance, could not accept such a concep-
tion. In 1813, he expressed his disagreement in the review he devoted to the biography
written by the historian Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren on his father-in-law, Heyne,

34 Fr. A. Wolf, Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft nach Begriff, Umfang, Zweck und Wert,
Berlin 1807, repr. Weinheim 1986, p. 15–16.
35 Ibid., p. 17.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 79

who died in 1812.௘36 In this text, he stressed that “German philologists aspire to truly
understanding Antiquity and its spirit” and no longer envisage philology as an art
practice for its own sake, for the sole pleasure of technical feat, but rather as a means
to “raise the study of Antiquity” to the rank of a science. This ambition, which was
peculiar to German philologists, was brilliantly embodied in Wolf’s works. Yet it could
not be achieved as long as there prevailed the injunction expressed by Wolf himself
not to include the Orient in philological studies:
In order for philology and the science of Antiquity not to remain solely an art
form but to become a science, the ¿rst condition is that all the aspects of such
study be linked with one another and that a stop be put to the highly unnatural
separation between these two [Greek and Oriental domains]. It seems that time
has come at last, to leave once and for all the narrow traditional philological
sphere and to go beyond the sole Greeks and Romans, or rather to extend it
into truly general philology; indeed, we have already reached a stage where we
are aware of the fact that Greek Antiquity absolutely cannot be understood in
isolation, without including Oriental Antiquity.௘37
Hence, according to Fr. Schlegel, it was necessary to create philological seminars on
the model of the one started by Heyne in Göttingen even though, in these, students
would ¿rst be introduced to philological practice in the Greek domain, and later would
learn to apply these methods to the study of Oriental literature. Humanism no longer
consisted in elevating man by putting him into contact with a culture (Greek) supposed
to surpass all others, but rather to complete the picture of civilised humanity by in-
corporating the Orient, too long discredited by erudite Europe, the Aufklärer included.

The Philological Dispute over Myths, and its Consequences

Friedrich Schlegel nevertheless admitted that setting up such seminars would require
a considerable budgetary effort, even more so dif¿cult to attain at a time of political
unrest such as that which Germany was undergoing. There is no doubt that ¿nancial
issues were by no means insigni¿cant in the creation of Sanskrit teaching courses. Yet
what was more embarrassing, at the time, was that Schlegel took a stand in favour
of Sanskrit studies while at the same time his project was identi¿ed as setting out to
promote the Catholic dogma. This suspicion of crypto-Catholicism was related to a
will to stir up controversy, yet the dispute that broke out in the 1810s amongst Ger-
man philologists magni¿ed it and made things awkward for the project of developing
Sanskrit studies in Germany.
This conÀict, known as the “philological quarrel over mythology”, was set off by
a book by Friedrich Creuzer, a teacher in philology and ancient history at Heidelberg:
Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen (Symbolism and

36 Fr. Schlegel, Heyne, biographisch dargestellt von Heeren, in: E. Behler (ed.), Kritische Friedrich-
Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. III, Paderborn 1975, p. 294–301.
37 Ibid., p. 300.

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80 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

Mythology of the Ancient Peoples, Particularly the Greeks, 1810–1812). Much inÀu-
enced by the company of such romantics of Heidelberg, as Achim von Arnim, Clem-
ens Brentano and Joseph von Görres, as well as Fr. Schlegel, Creuzer started from the
presupposition that the various religions all drew their sources from the same original
wisdom, which would have taken for their form the submission of man to nature per-
ceived as transcendent. This implies that at the origin of religions there was a kind
of natural monotheism that evolved into polytheism in various regions of the world,
each time taking different con¿gurations. It was therefore a matter of tracing back the
various stages of this differentiation.௘38 Creuzer was convinced of the primordial role
played by Oriental priests: expressing themselves in symbols in order to better impress
the people’s imagination, he believed they gradually developed a set of myths. The
meaning of those myths became lost as time went by and this is how they drifted into
poetry as they were passed on in time and space, i. e. towards the West, from India
to Greece and beyond. The progressive shifting of civilisation from the Orient to the
Occident went along with a movement that tended to rationalise, equivalent to losing
immediacy in one’s relation to reality. It was therefore no longer a matter of interpret-
ing texts line after line by seeking traces of the original wisdom and comparing the
passages from the canonical texts of various religions in order to understand how this
wisdom spread out. According to Creuzer, such traces were still to be found in Oriental
religions, as well as in the Greek religion of mysteries.
This explanation of the genesis of Western religions – all stemming from an initial
Oriental source – and the idea that placing it in relation to India was essential in order
to understand Greek religion unleashed the fury of classical philologists. First among
them was Gottfried Hermann, an eminent professor at Leipzig and the supporter of phi-
lology mainly centred on critique and etymology. In the letters he addressed to Creuzer,
Hermann especially challenged the notion of a historical distortion and divergence
from a common original content. Considering it impossible for an expression to mean
anything other than what its form implies, i. e. that there could exist a gap between the
linguistic and semantic levels, Hermann could not accept the idea of symbols. While
it is quite probable that Greek myths were created by erudite priests, the latter were
certainly not Oriental but Greek, and far from being symbolic and mysterious, the
meaning of myths only reÀects a complexity easily elucidated by means of grammati-
cal and etymological analyses.
Beyond Hermann, all of Creuzer’s opponents emphasised that the spirit of each
people is embodied in its cultural productions and that the Greek religion and art stem
from an autonomous development, independent from any Oriental inÀuence. The dis-
pute swelled up in the 1810s, leading to Johann Heinrich Voß’ Antisymbolik in 1824.
In this work whose title is self-explanatory, the poet and translator applied himself to
demonstrating that Creuzer’s work proceeded from the harmful, combined inÀuences
of unavowed Catholicism and unbridled Oriental mysticism. In 1825, it was the turn

38 P. Judet de la Combe, La querelle philologique du mythe. Les termes d’un débat en Allemagne et
en France au début du siècle dernier, Revue germanique internationale 4/1995, Paris, p. 55–67.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 81

of the philologist Karl Otfried Müller to publish, against Creuzer, his Prolegomena
zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (Prolegomena to a Scienti¿c Mythology). He
strongly denounced the approach of historical comparatism – according to him a total
denial of the national singularity of cultures – as well as the necessarily speculative na-
ture of studies about eras when writing did not yet exist.௘39 Creuzer’s thought, in which
his opponents saw close interweaving between India, mysticism, Catholicism (in the
importance given over to priests) and philosophical speculation, thus contributed to
the poor reputation of Indian studies amongst classical philologists.

Sanskrit in German Universities

A Discreet Entrance
To distinguish their ¿eld from theology, (classical) philologists had striven to dem-
onstrate that their activity was not a method at the service of other disciplines, but a
fully-Àedged discipline in itself. It is no surprise that classical philologists, who were
concerned about their own autonomy, would care little about that of Oriental studies
vis-à-vis theology. In his presentation of the Science of Antiquity in 1807, Wolf was
very clear on this subject. He proclaimed the absence of any Hebrew literature worthy
of the name, which could, as was the case with Greek literature, go beyond the stage
of natural and spontaneous verbal expression. Seeing that it belonged to Hebrew lit-
erature, the Old Testament was included in this criticism. It could therefore no longer
enter into the ¿eld of philology; consequently, its study could only fall to Orientalists,௘40
whom Wolf willingly left con¿ned to their historical role of servants of Biblical culture.
This standpoint enables us to better understand why, even in the Friedrich Wilhelm
University of Berlin, which was supposed to represent the heart of neo-humanism,
Orientalism was maintained in its traditional function as an auxiliary of theology until
the early 1820s. When this university opened in 1810, the teaching of Orientalism
merely took the form of an Extraordinariat included in the theology faculty.௘41 When,
in 1812, a second curriculum in Orientalism was created, this time within the faculty
of philosophy, it was again allotted to an außerordentlicher Professor, who still did
not have a full chair and who remained in charge of giving classes in Biblical genesis
in addition to those of Oriental languages. Nevertheless, the choice to appoint Georg
Heinrich Bernstein to this position made it possible for the modern current of Oriental
philology to enter the university. Straightaway, aside from the various Biblical lan-
guages, Bernstein offered courses in Arabic and Persian, with no relation to the Bible.
Above all, in 1820 and 1821 he integrated teachings on the Sanskrit language and an-
cient Indian literature into his programme.௘42 Thus it was discreetly, as a sub-discipline

39 S. Marchand, Down from Olympus. Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750–1970,

Princeton 1996, p. 46.
40 Wolf, p. 17.
41 Mangold, p. 120.
42 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 17.

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82 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

of Orientalism, that Sanskrit entered university. However, the orientation that Bernstein
gave to his Orientalist courses shows, at least, that professors had a relatively free hand
in Prussian universities. While the autonomous practice of Orientalism had not been
the reformers‘ ¿rst concern, at least the principle of “freedom of teaching” enabled
teachers to open breaches in the traditional discipline outlines.
The absence of centralisation in German intellectual life was another advantage
in favour of the emergence of new disciplines, in that it enabled such initiatives in
places other than solely the Berlin University. In the new University of Bonn, which
opened in 1818, A. W. Schlegel undertook to promote the study of Sanskrit as early
as 1819, one year before Bernstein proposed succinct classes in Berlin. Schlegel had
been entrusted with a chair that included a good number of courses so that he could
direct its orientation as he pleased: the history of Middle-Age and modern literature,
the history of German language and literature, classical literature, art history and an-
cient history.௘43 Early on, in 1818, A. W. Schlegel mentioned to the Prussian Minister
of Education, Karl Freiherr von Altenstein, that he was in a position to deliver classes
on “the most ancient history of Asian civilisation”, having devoted all “these recent
years to learning the Indian language, as a matter of priority”. In fact, in the summer
semester of 1819, he dedicated a whole course to an “Overview of Indian Literature”
(Übersicht der indischen Literatur). This course brought together enough students for
him to be able to write to the Kurator of Bonn University, Philipp Joseph Rehfues, a
letter of self-congratulation for having initiated Indian studies in Germany: “I have
always been very keen to introduce Indian studies in Germany. The course I gave on
this subject last summer, however imperfect it may have been, has met with very sat-
isfactory success.”௘44
Drawing strength from this project, he made this course the ¿rst of a long series,
one he pursued throughout his whole career, adding to the study of Indian literature
that of the Sanskrit language. As would be the case in Berlin the following year, the
insertion of Sanskrit on Bonn’s academic scene took place in an informal fashion,
without the creation of a speci¿c chair. Nevertheless, thanks to Schlegel’s determina-
tion and inÀuential personality, the University of Bonn was soon endowed with a solid
and long-lasting base from which one could make Sanskrit studies bear fruit. In March
1820, he sent Altenstein a list detailing “the means to solidly establish the study of In-
dian language and literature in Germany”௘45 so that German scholars would no longer
depend on France or England to learn Sanskrit. This list included setting up a printing
press in Indian characters and publishing an abridged grammar along with a dictionary,
chrestomathies and original texts, as well as training Sanskrit teachers. As an answer,
the ministry granted him several months of leave in order to perform his studies, and
the money necessary to set up a printing press in DevanƗgarƯ.௘46

43 Körner, p. 333–334 (A. W. Schlegel à Altenstein, Heidelberg, August 27, 1818).

44 Ibid., p. 364 (A. W. Schlegel to Rehfues, Bonn, December 10, 1819).
45 Ibid., p. 374–374 & 376–377 (A. W. Schlegel to Altenstein, Bonn, March 6, 1820 & appendix).
46 Ibid., p. 178–179 (Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg to A. W. Schlegel, Bonn, March 25, 1820).

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 83

At the very moment when Bonn University was asserting itself as a centre of In-
dological studies in Germany, Bernstein was called by the University of Breslau to
take up an Ordinariat in Oriental languages. At that date, in the spring of 1821, Bopp
had just returned from London and had been denied the post of Professor of Oriental
languages at Würzburg University,௘47 on the grounds that he was specialised in a domain
– the study of Sanskrit – which was but a “literary luxury.” Humboldt then intervened
with the ministry so that Bopp would be appointed to the post left vacant by Bernstein
in Berlin௘48 – which, in any case, Altenstein was favourable to, given Bopp’s compe-
tences in Sanskrit. Indeed, despite all the reticence expressed by classical philologists
against Sanskrit studies, for the neo-humanists of the Prussian ministry these neverthe-
less represented a means to promote diversity and a spirit of innovation. The title of
Bopp’s Extraordinariat – “Oriental literature and general science of language (Orienta-
lische Literatur und allgemeine Sprachkunde) – rati¿ed the existence of Orientalism as
independent from theology,௘49 centred on comparative grammar as established by Bopp,
hence on Sanskrit. This Extraordinariat was even turned into an Ordinariat in 1825.

Bonn and Berlin: Competing Practices

Even with the chair allotted to Bopp in Berlin, Sanskrit studies did not achieve the
status of a full-Àedged discipline, integrated as they were into both the Oriental lan-
guage ensemble and the larger ¿eld of comparative grammar. This was the case even
though knowledge of Sanskrit had been a central criterion in the choice of the candi-
date, and Bopp’s nomination was conceived, by the minister Altenstein, as a means
for Berlin to catch up on the University of Bonn. This situation further aroused the
jealousy of A. W. Schlegel, who at one point had the prospect of being appointed to
the University of Berlin, where so many renowned professors were called. Far from
rejoicing that Sanskrit studies developed in another place in Germany, he withdrew
to a defensive position jealously guarding Bonn’s prerogatives. The dispute broke out
when the Prussian Ministry of Education ordered Rehfues to pass on to the Science
Academy all the material put together by A. W. Schlegel for setting up a printing press
in Indian characters, for the reason that Bopp needed it for its own works. The Acad-
emy of Science in Berlin was thus able to set up its own printing press, recasting the
fonts created by A. W. Schlegel.௘50
The latter conceived a feeling of long-lasting animosity towards Bopp௘51 despite
his initial benevolence towards this young scholar who had helped him to start learn-
ing Sanskrit in Paris in 1814. A. W. Schlegel went as far as regretting this former col-
laboration and the support he had given to Bopp several times. He henceforth levelled

47 Lefmann, vol. II, Preface, p. 17 (Humboldt to Bopp, May 1, 1821).

48 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 67 (Bopp to Windischmann, August 8, 1820).
49 Bopp did not have to teach Biblical exegesis, and on top of Sanskrit and comparative grammar
he taught Arabic and Persian
50 Kirfel, Die Anfänge, p. 277–278.
51 This episode is attested to by Lefmann, vol. I, p. 97.

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84 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

all kinds of reproaches against him, interpreting the printing shop matter as a sign of
arrogance and accusing Bopp of plagiarising him in his works; he also criticised him
because for not having written a favourable account on one of his recent works.௘52 The
dispute went into the 1830s. A. W. Schlegel, who raged against the dominant position
of his young colleague, was looking more and more to disparage him by ostensibly
differentiating himself from his method. Hence his growing rejection of comparative
grammar – although he had received it rather well in the beginning, which he now
interpreted as a simple way for Bopp to show himself to advantage:
Between you and me, Bopp seems to have been going backwards in the last few
years. Or rather, no! He just gets nowhere. Still, this is evidently why he goes
backwards, because his subject, for its part, goes on moving forward. I will-
ingly grant him his schoolboy Latin and his translations written in gibberish
German; but he is really weak in everything that concerns interpretation and
he has absolutely no talent for philological critique. This comes from his lack
of classical training. It is his works in grammar that still have the most value.
However, there again he looks to introduce originality even where it does not
have its place. He proves innovative in insigni¿cant domains and ceaselessly
repeats his favourite hypotheses.௘53
This is where the opposition between two different practices of Indology is more and
more clearly taking shape. One, represented by Bopp, is centred on linguistic analysis
and grammar, while the other one, championed by A. W. Schlegel, is centred on philo-
logical practice, which itself is clearly taken from classical philology with its twofold
dimension, both critical and interpretative.௘54

Indology and the Sciences of Antiquity

August Wilhelm Schlegel and the ‘Model’ of Classical Philology

Several factors prompted A. W. Schlegel to promote the model of classical philology
in Sanskrit studies. Even though he had fallen out with his brother Friedrich for vari-
ous reasons (disagreements between their respective spouses, Karoline and Dorothea,
Friedrich’s ¿nancial problems, and his decision to take the plunge and convert to Ca-
tholicism), he had nevertheless been quite marked by his reading of Ueber die Sprache
und Weisheit. It had been instrumental in his decision to go to Paris to learn Sanskrit,
and A. W. Schlegel still considered it as the “cornerstone” of the Sanskrit studies edi-
¿ce.௘55 He remained immersed in the idea of the special nobility of the Sanskrit lan-

52 Körner, p. 337–338 (A. Schlegel to Windischmann, Bonn, February 1822).

53 Ibid., p. 482–485 (A. W. Schlegel to Schulze, August 2, 1829).
54 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 27–36.
55 Quoted from the account that A. W. Schlegel wrote about Chézy’s Yadjnadatta-badha ou la mort
de Yadjnadatta (1814) and Discours prononcé au Collège royal de France (1815): A. W. Schle-
gel, Sämmtliche Werke XII, ed. E. Böcking, Leipzig 1847, p. 437. A. W. Schlegel defended his

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 85

guage௘56 and persisted in defending his brother’s thesis that agglutination represented
a later and inferior state to inÀection.௘57 Likewise, he still considered India as a source
for the knowledge of the human mind. This is why he showed the same interest for
Indian literature and culture as for the Sanskrit language itself, and he considered the
latter as a means to have access to the Indian text collection:
Europe has achieved greatness through its knowledge of the earth. Today, the
investigation into the primitive history of the human genre is no longer hindered
by narrow-minded notions. The comparative study of languages has crossed
the limits of history and revealed to us the af¿liation and migrations of peoples;
the ancient religion, legislation and mythology of the Brahmans has a thousand
points in common with the history of civilisation in the ancient world. Those
who deal with these arduous issues have until now been reduced to drawing
from troubled, altered sources; soon, it will no longer be permitted to draw on
anything but the ancient monuments.௘58
This passage undeniably echoes Fr. Schlegel’s thoughts both in the idea of enlarging the
Europeans’ geographical and historical horizon and in the aims assigned to compara-
tive linguistics, i. e. to bear witness to information from the past: the ¿liations, migra-
tions and civilisations of the peoples of Antiquity. At the same time, A. W. Schlegel’s
reference to the “troubled and altered sources” used by some scientists was an undis-
guised attack against the enterprise of such scholars as Creuzer, who granted India a
central place even though they did not know one word of Sanskrit. Indeed, such was
the second decisive element in A. W. Schlegel’s choice to resolutely turn towards the
methods of classical philology: the idea was to set philological rigour and objectivity
against fantasy and bias.
The evolution of scienti¿c ethos in German universities made this distancing even
more imperative in order to succeed in legitimising Sanskrit studies. Admittedly, the
notion of Vielseitigkeit, i. e. the bene¿ts of comprehensive training, encouraged the
Prussian Ministry of Education to agree to include Sanskrit in the academic offer.
A ¿eld of studies could ¿nd its place in philosophy faculties even though it did not
have direct professional use. After Bonn and Berlin, holders of chairs in Orientalism
added Sanskrit courses to their language offer in most universities in Prussia (among
them Königsberg, with Peter von Bohlen, in 1826) as well as in other German states, all
throughout the 1820s (Kiel in 1823, Greifswald in 1824, Würzburg in 1825, Erlangen,
Tübingen, Munich in 1826 and, lastly, Göttingen in 1827).௘59 The fragmented structure
of the German academic system gave rise to intense competition between universities,

brother’s book against criticism, notably by Schelling in his Untersuchungen über das Wesen der
menschlichen Freiheit (1809). See Oppenberg, Friedrich Schlegel, p. 433.
56 A. W. Schlegel, Über den gegenwärtigen Stand, p. 6.
57 Leitzmann, Briefwechsel zwischen Wilhelm von Humboldt und August Wilhelm Schlegel 1818–
1832, Halle 1908, p. 61–80 (A. W. Schlegel to Humboldt, Bonn, May 29, 1822).
58 Körner, p. 392–393 (A. W. Schlegel to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Bonn, August 1822).
59 Data compilation based on Mangold, p. 132–148.

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86 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

even compelling the smaller ones to open up courses in the largest number of ¿elds
possible in order to keep up with the level.௘60
However, the issues regarding the institutionalisation of Sanskrit studies were still
not resolved. Starting in the early 1820s, there had been a shift in the system of values
and the term “research” tended more and more to supplant Bildung. A large part of
courses – especially seminars – were compulsorily devoted to an introduction to re-
search; the aim, at least ideally, was to teach students how to support their hypotheses
with solid proof, how to skilfully handle and master technical tools, and how to retain
their autonomy of judgement in all circumstances.௘61 Insofar as examinations hence-
forth tested the ability of students to produce original research works, these tended
to become true experts; yet at the same time they became unable to cover the whole
range of their discipline, since each specialty required growing knowledge and skills.௘62
Criteria of scienti¿city were of growing importance in establishing the legitimacy of
the various domains of knowledge and, more than ever, they originated from classical
Throughout the 1820s, various German universities offered a growing number of
Sanskrit courses held by teachers of Oriental languages; yet they did not correspond
to A. W. Schlegel’s objective, which was that the speci¿c dignity of Indian studies be
acknowledged and their durability ensured in Germany. Sanskrit had to be taught as a
specialty: it was a sine qua non to train successive generations of teachers in the ¿eld.
For this to be achieved, besides ¿nancial issues – which remained quite substantial – it
was necessary to prove that the practices of Sanskritists complied with the scienti¿c
norm, i. e. the methods of classical philology. This concern appears throughout all of
A. W. Schlegel’s work as an Indologist. Yet it would be simplistic to consider this only
as some institutional strategy. Indeed, he had been trained in the school of classical
philology and he was thoroughly convinced of the superiority of its methods:
The tasks that are incumbent upon a publisher of Indian books are the same as
those of a classical philologist: establishing the authenticity – or inauthenticity –
of written works, whether whole or isolated passages; comparing manuscripts;
choosing lessons; occasionally devoting oneself to conjectural critique; and,
lastly, carrying out all the processes of the most penetrating hermeneutics.௘63
While referring to classical philology ensured him credibility within German uni-
versities, Schlegel was nevertheless sincere and he even considered that this method,
which he envisaged as a German speci¿city, would guarantee his country undeniable
supremacy in the ¿eld of Sanskrit. As he described it, this method became a means

60 M. Baumgarten, Professoren und Universitäten im 19. Jahrhundert. Zur Sozialgeschichte deut-

scher Geistes- und Naturwissenschaftler, Göttingen 1997, p 16.
61 Grafton, De polyhistor en philologue, p. 30.
62 E. Hültenschmidt, La professionnalisation de la recherche allemande, in: Auroux (ed.), Histoire
des idées linguistiques, vol. III, p. 84–85. On the causes of the “primacy of research” in Germany
as of 1830, in classical philology and comparative grammar, see Turner, Universitäten, p. 239.
63 A. W. Schlegel, Über den gegenwärtigen Stand, p. 23.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 87

of assertion vis-à-vis the British and French Indologists who had dominated these
studies in the beginning. Thus, on the occasion of the RéÀexions sur l’étude des lan-
gues asiatiques adressées à Sir James Mackintosh (ReÀections on the Study of Asiatic
Languages, addressed to Sir James Mackintosh), he played the role of the watchdog
of Orientalist activity. He had no hesitation about condemning the “British” who, “in
India, made translations while neither realizing the demands of philological critique
nor possessing the necessary skills.”௘64
Going as far as decreeing the conditions for a professional exercise of Orientalism,
he strongly advised using Latin for translations. He also endeavoured to de¿ne the con-
tours of Orientalism according to the nations that he deemed worthy of being taken into
account by the Committee of Oriental Translations newly founded in London. “Arabs”
were dismissed on the grounds that there could be no possible comparison between
theirs and Greek or Latin literature. Persian poetry was considered as too mannered
to be given a high priority amongst works that needed to be translated. On the other
hand, A. W. Schlegel reasserted the great re¿nement, richness and high antiquity of
ancient Indian literature. As for the translation rules that he set out, they required that
one master the source language (this assertion goes to show that Orientalism indeed
had yet to reach an advanced stage of professionalism) and make use of the original
texts. He encouraged translators to pay special attention to the collation and correc-
tion of manuscripts. Schlegel proudly asserted his status as a philologist, including
his opposition to those Orientalists trained on the ¿eld. The Indian world, which his
brother envisaged as the promise of a revenge on the Greek and Latin Renaissance,
was eliminated from this competitive status and henceforth appeared as the continua-
tion of that same Renaissance.௘65
A similar evolution emerged in France as well in the 1820s, which were de¿nitely
crucial years. The Asiatic Society of Paris was founded in 1821. The nature of Orien-
talist activity was left open in its statutes, which equally valued scienti¿c studies and
more mannered, even urbane approaches. The representatives of this second wave of
Orientalism would be nicknamed “Àorists” after the event, for their very pompous
style borrowing from the texts in Oriental fashion that had peppered French litera-
ture since the 18th century.௘66 First among these “Àorists” was Antoine-Léonard de
Chézy who, for instance, compared the Sanskrit language to a “quiet river gently
meandering through moss and Àowers, […] smoothly carrying along our delighted
imagination and softly transporting it into an enchanted world.”௘67 The opposite camp,
which comprised the supporters of studies and translation reÀecting accurate knowl-
edge and precise analysis of texts, could endure less and less what they considered

64 A. W. Schlegel, RéÀexions, p. 3–5.

65 Gérard, p. 141.
66 L. Finot, Historique de la Société asiatique, in: Le Livre du Centenaire (1822–1922), Paris 1922,
p. 15.
67 A.-L. de Chézy, Discours sur les avantages, la beauté, la richesse de la Langue Sanskrite et sur
l’utilité, les agréments que l’on peut retirer de son étude, prononcé au Collège royal de France, à
l’ouverture du cours de langue et de littérature sanskrites, Paris 1815, p. 15–16.

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88 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

as amateurism on the part of the “Àorists”. Amongst them were the Sinologist Abel
Rémusat; the Iranologist Julius (Jules) Mohl, a German Orientalist who had arrived
in Paris in 1823 to further his knowledge with Silvestre de Sacy and who made all his
career in France; and the Indologist Eugène Burnouf, who was to succeed de Chézy
at the Collège de France. He was in close contact with various German colleagues,
notably Bopp whose works he intended to translate into French.௘68 For that matter, it
was a German Orientalist, also gone to Paris to study with de Sacy, who sparked off
the open war between both camps. Friedrich Eduard Schulz published two articles in
the Journal asiatique in 1825, criticising the “Àorists” and enjoining Orientalists to
work on “the solid basis of critique and history”. These papers gave rise to indignant
reactions from the “Àorists”, creating tensions amidst the Asiatic Society. These ten-
sions reached their peak when the Society’s president, Silvestre de Sacy, sided with the
“Àorists” while Eugène Burnouf was elected assistant secretary in the Society, thanks
to the votes of the “anti-Àorists.”௘69
In the end, the “anti-Àorists” did win in the late 1820s and in 1829 Abel Rémusat
took over from de Sacy as the society’s president. The respective situations of Orien-
talism most certainly evolved independently from one another in France and in Ger-
many, and “anti-Àorists” were not exclusively inÀuenced by Germany: a philological
approach well and truly existed in France, as can be seen from Silvestre de Sacy’s
works before his reversal in favour of the “Àorists”. Nevertheless, research on how to
better de¿ne the scienti¿c identity of Orientalism in general and Sanskrit in particu-
lar was shared on both sides of the Rhine for a while. This parallel was con¿rmed by
A. W. Schlegel’s opinion of Chézy, his ¿rst teacher of Sanskrit, with whom he had a
tumultuous relationship – even more so given Chézy’s sensitive, temperamental na-
ture. In a letter that A. W. Schlegel wrote to him in December 1823, he disguised his
reproaches as Àattery: “My dear Guru […] you have a unique talent for transposing
the unique charm of Indian poetry to European forms, while I limit myself to the un-
rewarding task of the critique and interpreter.”௘70

Christian Lassen, the Worthy Heir

While A. W. Schlegel gladly set himself up as the judge of the works of his foreign
colleagues, he was mainly concerned with the future of Indology in Germany. His ten-
sions with Bopp only sharpened his often-expressed intention to create a true school of
Indology in Bonn. This will was already clear in the attention he had given to setting
up a kind of Indological “infrastructure”. One example of this was when he created the

68 Fr. M. Müller, Julius Mohl by F. Max Müller, reprinted excerpt of the Contemporary Review
(August 1878), London 1878.
69 On the development of this antagonism, see D. T. McGetchin, Wilting Florists: The Turbulent
Early Decades of the Société Asiatique, 1822–1860, Journal of the History of Ideas 64/4, 2003,
p. 571–573.
70 Körner, p. 404–405 (A. W. Schlegel to Chézy, Bonn, December 22, 1823).

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 89

Indische Bibliothek (Indian Library), a scienti¿c journal speci¿cally devoted to Indian

studies (the ¿rst of its kind in Germany), which was published from 1820 until 1830.௘71
Written in 1820, that is to say hardly a year after the beginning of Indological
courses in Bonn, the foreword of the ¿rst issue of the Indian Library bears witness to
both the direction A. W. Schlegel wished to give to Indology and the Àedgling profes-
sionalisation of these studies. He expressed his resolution that every article would rest
on strong philological bases in order to satisfy the small number of European readers
who already knew Sanskrit. However, anxious to broaden the public for Indology, he
speci¿ed that the largest part of the journal would be devoted to “instruction accessible
to all, and relevant entertainment.”௘72 The same concern drove him to gather within the
journal all the information on India then available, not only taking Antiquity into ac-
count but also the contemporary epoch: it would deal with geography, natural history,
the political, social and religious situations, and “ancient monuments of architecture
and sculpture”. This effort at synthesis was to be instrumental in introducing Indian
themes to the learned German public. Yet it also clearly tied up the various branches
of the science of Antiquity – Altertumswissenschaft – as Wolf had conceived it, i. e.
a twenty-four piece ensemble comprising six “main” sciences (including grammar,
linguistics, metrics) and eighteen “secondary” ones (among them numismatics, his-
tory, geography, and several kinds of archaeology). Furthermore, as Wolf had done
with Greece, in the study of contemporary India A. W. Schlegel saw a means to ¿nd
the political or social state of ancient India again, through induction. Therefore, long
before there were tensions between Bopp and A. W. Schlegel, this foreword bore the
distinctive mark of Indology as the latter envisaged it. This meant applying philologi-
cal methods, and more speci¿cally those of the Altertumswissenschaft, to India – even
though A. W. Schlegel admitted that comparative grammar made it possible to put an
end to “etymological trial and error research in etymology” and to show the true rela-
tionships between languages.
Wanting to ensure his intellectual and institutional succession, he took an interest
in a young Norwegian student, Christian Lassen, who followed his Sanskrit classes
and who had also bene¿ted from solid training in classical philology, in Bonn. This
pro¿le, added to all the qualities he showed in the study of Sanskrit, tended to make
A. W. Schlegel consider Lassen as the ideal “continuator” of his own enterprise.௘73 He
obtained a scholarship from the Prussian government for Lassen to go and further his
studies in Paris and London between 1823 and 1827. His attitude towards Lassen was
that of a true mandarin: he did not conceal the professional prospects he intended to
open to him through his connections at the Ministry of Education. In return, however,
he also assigned him the tedious task of copying out manuscripts in French and Brit-
ish libraries:

71 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 26.

72 A. W. Schlegel, Vorrede, Indische Bibliothek I, 1820, p. XIII.
73 Körner, p. 485, A. W. Schlegel to Schulze, in charge of Higher Education at the Ministry of Edu-
cation of Prussia (Bonn, August 2, 1829).

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90 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

In my opinion, you should stay another year […] in London. This delay would
enable you to achieve enough work for us to have gathered the materials for
the two ¿rst deliveries of the Râmây[a৆a].௘74 You could then come back and
resume your more general studies, obtain your doctorate and get certi¿cation
as a Privat-Dozent […] Once you have made yourself known as a scholar by
publishing at least a few treatises, you will be sure to obtain a post as an extraor-
dinary professor. […] You can see that I have established very serious plans for
your future career, and I can boast that I am not without a certain inÀuence.௘75

Lassen, who had already been in charge of some of A. W. Schlegel’s courses in Sanskrit
for a few years, thus acceded to Extraordinariat in 1830 and Ordinariat in 1840.௘76 This
was quite an important victory for Schlegel, for the creation of this chair established
Sanskrit as an autonomous discipline not only with regard to theology but also to com-
parative grammar. What had also certainly facilitated this evolution was the fact that by
1824 Sanskrit was no longer a totally foreign element in German universities. Starting
in 1820, A. W. Schlegel and Bopp had already managed to train several specialists in
Sanskrit and/or comparative grammar. Between 1830 and 1840, other universities es-
tablished chairs exclusively reserved for Indologists. In 1838, the University of Halle
created a chair in the “General Science of Language” (Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft),
occupied by the Sanskritist and comparatist Friedrich August Pott, one of Bopp’s for-
mer students. Moreover, starting in 1833, the Extraordinariat in Oriental languages
at Breslau University was held by Adolf Friedrich Stenzler, a former student of Bopp
and A. W. Schlegel, who had gradually given up teaching Arabic and Persian to de-
vote himself to Sanskrit.௘77 Nevertheless, Lassen’s accession to an Ordinariat devoted
to “the language and literature of Ancient India” (Altindische Sprache und Literatur)
represented the advent of the ¿rst speci¿cally Indological chair, which furthermore
emphasised the speci¿city of the “Bonn school”, especially in relation to that of Berlin.
Lassen was continuing the work of his master A. W. Schlegel in many respects,
not only on an institutional level. From the standpoint of method, he showed as much
hostility as his master did towards the “Boppian school”,௘78 as can be seen from the
very critical account he devoted to Bopp’s Sanskrit grammar in the last volume of the
Indian Library in 1830.௘79 He noted again, and greatly insisted upon his Berlin col-
league’s Àaws, which had already been picked out by A. W. Schlegel: not taking into
account the analyses provided by indigenous grammars on the one hand, the lack of

74 A. W. Schlegel and Lassen were working jointly on the publication of the RƗmƗya۬a.
75 W. Kirfel (ed.), Briefwechsel A. W. Schlegel௘–௘Christian Lassen, Bonn 1914, p. 48–49, A. W. Schle-
gel to Lassen (Bonn, July 6, 1824).
76 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 155.
77 Stache-Rosen, p. 20–21 and 30–31.
78 The wording is A. W. Schlegel’s: Kirfel, Briefwechsel, p. 219, A. W. Schlegel to Lassen (Paris,
February 13, 1832).
79 C. Lassen, Über Herrn Professor Bopps grammatisches System der Sanskrit-Sprache, Indische
Bibliothek III, 1830, p. 1–113.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 91

philological (in the sense of classical philology) method on the other. An indication of
lingering resentment, Lassen still denounced the “Berlin school” in a letter addressed
to the Sanskritist Heinrich Ewald in 1841, where he criticised the tendency to resort
solely to etymology or grammar in order to analyse texts. According to him this method
was totally arbitrary and, were it to expand in Germany, there would be a great risk of
“building up a typically-German knowledge of Sanskrit, which would not be valid in
the eyes of other nations and would not be adapted to ‘truly Sanskritic Sanskrit’ [das
sanskritische Sanskrit]”.௘80
Dismissing the chieÀy linguistic and etymological perspective led Lassen to push
the attitude inherited from the sciences of Antiquity even further than A. W. Schlegel
had done, and he put all his energy into shedding a general light on the civilisation of
ancient India. This ambition was already noticeable in the Zeitschrift für die Kunde
des Morgenlandes (Journal for the Knowledge of the Orient), which he founded in
1837 with Heinrich Ewald, an ordinary professor of Oriental languages at Göttingen
University. This journal was not limited to the Indian world; it spanned all Oriental
languages and cultures.௘81 In such a journal, the role of Sanskritists like Ewald and Las-
sen shows the increasing weight of Sanskrit amongst Oriental languages, as well as
Lassen’s will to apprehend India in a global perspective, including its historical rela-
tionship with the rest of the Oriental world. Lassen did not study the language for itself,
but in order to have easier access to texts – which in turn only interested him for what
they revealed about Indian civilisation. Within the framework of a series of articles on
“the knowledge of Indian Antiquity based on the Mahâbhârata” (“Beiträge zur Kunde
des indischen Alterthums aus dem Mahâbhârata”), Lassen notably published some
papers on the “Research on the ethnographic situation of the peoples of Western India”
(“Untersuchungen über die ethnographische Stellung der Völker im Westen Indiens”).
These articles dealt with the Baluch and Brahui peoples and their respective languag-
es.௘82 There is an obvious shift from the text to its civilisational, even anthropological,
background; indeed, by “ethnography” Lassen meant the description of the peoples
from a given area. At the same time, Lassen’s Indological works contributed yet an-
other innovative dimension, i. e. that of taking into account all the peoples, languages
and epochs of ancient India, no longer only Sanskrit and classical culture.

Indology and the Philology of Things

The “science of Antiquity” was actually far from winning unanimity within classical
philology itself. Indeed, from the 1810s to the 1830s, there were harsh internal op-
positions within classical philology, notably between the supporters of the “philology

80 R. Fick/G. V. Selle (ed.), Briefe an Ewald. Aus seinem Nachlaß, Göttingen 1932, p. 150, C. Lassen
to H. Ewald (Bonn, January 3, 1841).
81 H. Ewald, Plan dieser Zeitschrift, Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes I, 1837, p. 3–13.
82 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 157.

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92 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

of words” (Wortphilologie) and those of the “philology of things” (Sachphilologie).௘83

This dispute was particularly echoed in the sharp exchanges that took place between
Gottfried Hermann and August Boeckh. The former was a professor of philology from
Leipzig who had already strongly clashed with Creuzer as regards the interpretation
of myths; the latter was appointed to the post of ordinary professor of rhetoric at the
new University of Berlin in 1810, after Hermann turned it down. Boeckh’s philologi-
cal practice was in the continuation of the Altertumswissenschaft as promoted by Wolf,
whose student he had been; yet his perspective was less encyclopaedic and rather
aimed at presenting a coherent picture of Antiquity.௘84 It was a matter of taking an in-
terest in state and family institutions, religion, art and knowledge. A former student of
Schleiermacher, Boeckh was considerably enlarging the scope of hermeneutic activity,
considering as he did that all historical undertakings (laws, customs, literary works,
architectural monuments etc) could be interpreted in the same ways as symbols. To
him language, as a form of thought, was no more than one historical product among
others; he therefore relegated linguistic analysis to the same rank as that of text realia
and mainly sought to extract words for their semantic content.
For Hermann on the other hand, language, “the living reÀection of the human
mind”,௘85 was the most characteristic feature of the essence of a people. It was the only
means of apprehending and comprehending the other speci¿c properties of the people
being studied. Language was therefore the privileged subject of philology. Hermann
criticised the supporters of Sachphilologie, such as Boeckh and his student Karl Otfried
Müller, for focussing on the historical side of philological study to make up for not
having mastered linguistic analysis. Admittedly, the opposition between both camps –
i. e. between an Antiquity-and-history oriented attitude on the one hand and a purely
linguistic and etymological perspective on the other – should be moderated: Boeckh
took offence at the criticism against him for neglecting the “technical” side of philol-
ogy in the same way that Hermann claimed his commitment to taking into account
the cultural dimension of the texts. Nevertheless, there remained a difference of spirit
in the manner in which they approached philology – a difference crystallised by one’s
attempts to win the dispute regarding the rightful de¿nition of philology.
The papers Lassen wrote for the Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes can
be read as preparatory stages in the achievement of his opus magnum in four vol-
umes (1847–1861). This work was entitled Science of the Indian Antiquity (Indische

83 C. Lehmann, Die Auseinandersetzung zwischen Wort- und Sachphilologie in der deutschen klassi-
schen Altertumswissenschaft des 19. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1964 (unpublished thesis); E. Vogt, Der
Methodenstreit zwischen Hermann und Böckh und seine Bedeutung für die Geschichte der Philo-
logie, in: H. Flashar/K. Gründer/A. Horstmann (ed.), Philologie und Hermeneutik im 19. Jahr-
hundert, vol. I, p. 121–131.
84 Lehmann, p. 5.
85 Vogt, p. 115–116.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 93

Alterthumskunde),௘86 probably to echo the subheading chosen by Fr. Schlegel in his

1808 publication: “A contribution to the founding of a science of Antiquity” (Ein Bei-
trag zur Begründung der Alterthumskunde). Lassen’s book appears as a synthesis of
the knowledge on India accumulated since Antiquity and his own research – all this
¿nding sense through thematic organising. He thus showed the progress made since
the early stages of Indology. This is why his title could proclaim the existence of a
discipline – i. e. the science of Indian Antiquity – when Fr. Schlegel had only been
able to announce its ¿rst signs.
The four volumes of the Indische Alterthumskunde featured three large parts. The
¿rst one was devoted to geography and was mainly developed from information pro-
vided by the Berlin geographer Carl Ritter.௘87 It described the physical characteristics
of each region of India, its fauna, Àora, mineral resources and climate. In the second
part, devoted to Indian history, Lassen proceeded chronologically at times and themati-
cally at other times. Starting with a “general ethnological picture”, he then presented
the various epochs of Indian history envisaged from the standpoints of the creation of
the caste system, religious evolution, and contact with peoples living near the borders
of India. Lastly, the third part was dedicated to the detailed presentation of Indian
literature, religion, art and sciences. The book structure made it possible to integrate
all available information on India into a general view of the country and of its history
and culture. It shows Lassen’s will to ensure that the whole work was coherent. Las-
sen did not hide the commitment of his enterprise, whose purpose was to increase the
importance granted to India within the system of knowledge. Once again, this approach
was aimed against downgrading Sanskrit to the rank of being a mere instrument for
use in comparative grammar:
Nevertheless, via the knowledge of Sanskrit, one of the richest and most ancient
literatures has come down to us. This literature now enables us to explore the
historical evolution of one of the greatest, earliest-civilised and most singular
peoples of the ancient world, as well as to grasp their spirit in all its clarity. To
accomplish this work must be the ultimate goal of the philology of ancient India.
In-depth and critical knowledge of the language is the prime requirement and
the only safe basis for this orientation of study. Yet as far as historical research
is concerned, it will never bear fruit if it is not put at the service of the full
understanding of the texts. This not only requires the knowledge of the words
and grammar forms but also great familiarity with the state of Indian culture
as a whole.௘88

86 C. Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, Leipzig/London 1847, 1852, 1858, 1861 (4 vol.). The book
was reprinted in two volumes in a revised, augmented edition, in 1867 and 1874, which is the one
I’ll be referring to here.
87 Ritter’s works are characterised by the attention given to the reciprocal inÀuence of man on the
natural environment and of the natural environment on man; they were instrumental in the birth
of anthropogeography.
88 Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, vol. I, p. V–VI.

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94 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

In giving primacy to hermeneutics, Lassen takes his place within the “philology of
things”௘89 as it had been promoted by Boeckh. Both men shared the same perception of
ancient civilisations, marked by historicism (Historismus) – a current of thought that
developed in Germany, notably in opposition to the notion of natural right promoted
by the French Revolution. Friedrich Carl von Savigny was the founder of the histori-
cal law school in Germany (historische Rechtsschule). For him, the development of
the laws of a given people resulted from the historical development of the “spirit of
the people “ (Volksgeist) itself, and this Volksgeist was reÀected precisely in the legal
undertakings whose arrival it conditioned. The idea that it is possible to discover the
spirit of a people in the archives of its history marked Germany throughout the 19th
century. An unsettled notion which would be dif¿cult to apprehend later on, ‘histori-
cism’ assembled the diverse criticisms of German men of letters against the universalist
conception of reason as championed by the French Enlightenment. These criticisms led
them to give prominence to the notion of speci¿c development and cultural particular-
ity for each nation.௘90 Historicism was also developed in opposition to the philosophy
of history as elaborated by Hegel, and what was read as his teleological conception of
historical evolutions. It asserted that history is the product of man’s activity and does
not result from a transcendent principle. Hence the rejection of the notion of the march
of history towards progress – even though the supporters of historicism defended a
continuist view of history and borrowed Herder’s notion of “evolution”. The way it
thus opposed the speculative approach peculiar to the philosophy of history௘91 partly
explains what characterised historicism: the claim for a scienti¿c method whose fa-
vourite form was the “critique of sources” (Quellenkritik), i. e. the systematic study
of available sources.

89 Mangold, p. 98–100, makes the same observation about Ewald, Lassen’s collaborator for the
Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes.
90 G. Raulet, Objektivitätsanspruch und historisches Erkenntnisinteresse. Zur Spezi¿k des deutschen
Historismus, Cahiers d’études germaniques 40, 2001, p. 7–36.
91 As far as terminology is concerned, the situation was complicated by the controversial use made
of the term “Historismus”. Applied to the supporters of historical science, “Historismus” denoted
criticism against the trend towards cultural relativism. Yet the term “Historismus” could also
be used by the supporters of historical science themselves to qualify the representatives of the
philosophy of history which they condemned. On the various phases of “Historismus”, see H.
Schnädelbach, Philosophie in Deutschland 1831–1933, Frankfurt am Main 1994, p. 50–51. We
usually see a precursor of historicism in Herder because of his philosophy of history, developed
in opposition to certain currents in the French Enlightenment. He rose up against the pretension of
each epoch to set itself up as the guarantor of universal values and he insisted on the cultural and
temporal relativity of the values and truths defended by each civilisation. Nevertheless, Herder’s
thought was the result of the philosophy of history and assigned ¿nality to the historical devel-
opment of each people. Consequently, Herder has alternately been considered as an ancestor of
historicism or as a representative of the philosophy of history. He can be set apart from Hegel in
that he envisaged types of evolutions peculiar to the different cultures while Hegel envisaged a
more or less general course for the rational evolution of humanity.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 95

Classical philology became a historical science as it took over and transformed

the new conception of history stemming from the French Revolution.௘92 In the 15th,
16th and 17th centuries, when it was trying to revive Antiquity, traditional humanist
philology simply aimed at drawing steadfast maxims from it. Henceforth, such neo-
humanism as Humboldt’s no longer sought to ¿nd a model to follow unconditionally in
Greek Antiquity: it was rather a matter of knowing it as a historical period and discov-
ering its speci¿c national character. August Boeckh, a colleague of Savigny in Berlin,
pushed the logics of historicism even further and rejected the normative dimension
which Humboldt and Wolf nevertheless persisted in granting to Greek Antiquity. For
Boeckh, this epoch was not a given, nor was it intangible, but it occurred in history,
gradually taking shape. Since Greek Antiquity is no more speci¿c than other epochs,
Boeckh rejected the denomination “science of Antiquity”, preferring that of “classical
philology”, which was a way to make known that this discipline was but one branch
of philology amongst others.௘93 Lassen, for his part, persisted in talking about Alter-
thumskunde; however, his philological practice, solely directed towards researching
historical facts without reference to normativeness, established an undeniable bridge
with Boeckh’s historicism. There is another indication of this intellectual closeness:
Lassen granted the same importance to the necessity of understanding a culture through
its own cultural marks (and not according to the cultural situation of the hermeneutist
himself) as Boeckh and even Heyne and Wolf did.
In order to exist within the university, Sanskritists had had to come to terms with a
two-sided context. The evolution of Orientalism towards secularisation was favourable
to the insertion of Oriental languages irrelevant to Biblical exegesis issues. Yet it re-
quired that Sanskritists show the neutrality of their domain of study on a religious level
and further assert the rigour of their methods. The neo-humanist reform movement
that had started in Prussia and was starting to spread throughout Germany appeared as
a gain in Àexibility and open-mindedness, inasmuch as it valued discipline diversity.
For all that, it brought about additional constraints, since classical philology exerted
growing normative control upon neighbouring disciplines. In Bonn, A. W. Schlegel
and Lassen remarkably managed to take advantage of this context while eluding its
dif¿culties. As Wilhelm Halbfass has emphasized, in giving their works the form of
scienti¿c research on India (Indienforschung) the Sanskritists resolutely turned their
backs on the philosophical quest or ‘yearning for India’ (Indiensehnsucht).௘94 On the
other hand, interest in Indian culture, which had inspired Fr. Schlegel in his time, could
thus be kept alive and fructify. Adopting the scienti¿c model of classical philology
guarded it from both the scepticism that Fr. Schlegel had ended up imposing on it as
he gradually discovered Catholicism, and the risk of reducing ancient India to its lan-
guage, perceived as a mere instrument to be used by comparatists.

92 U. Muhlack, Klassische Philologie und Geschichtswissenschaft im 19. Jahrhundert, in: Flashar/

Gründer/Horstmann, p. 225–239.
93 Ibid., p. 237, and Stierle, p. 269.
94 Halbfass, Indien und Europa, p. 102–103.

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96 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

While there was a real difference between the Indological schools of Berlin and
Bonn, in actual fact their respective epistemological choices – a philological-cultural
approach in one case, a linguistic and comparativist one in the other – increasingly
coexisted as Sanskrit studies expanded institutionally. In the 1840s Sanskrit teaching
was reinforced with the creation of new chairs. This resulted from both the grow-
ing recognition of the importance of Sanskrit and the accumulation of knowledge on
India, which made it imperative for chairs in Orientalism to specialise. As had been
the case with Lassen in Bonn in 1840, the Extraordinariat at Breslau University was
turned into an Ordinariat in 1845; two years later, an Oriental language Ordinariat in
comparative linguistics (Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft) and philology of ancient
German was created at Greifswald University. The growing number of posts of ex-
traordinary professors during the same decade is a sign that Sanskrit was entering into
new universities: those of Leipzig in 1841, Tübingen and Göttingen in 1848. Most of
these chairs included the teaching of both Sanskrit and comparative grammar, their
importance varying according to the universities involved.௘95
Furthermore, in the mid-1840s the representatives of these two trends of German
Indology were gathered together within the framework of the Deutsche Morgenlän-
dische Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society), which Germany created some twenty
years after France (Société asiatique de Paris, 1821) and Great Britain (Royal Asiatic
Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1824). The inspiration for the creation of the
German society had come to Orientalists from the Association of German Philolo-
gists and Teachers (Verein deutscher Philologen und Schulmänner); formed in 1837,
it comprised classical philologists, historians, linguists, jurists and representatives of
the newly-born Germanistics.௘96 This inÀuence is visible in the statutes of the Deutsche
Morgenländische Gesellschaft, which was autonomous in principle yet tended to orga-
nise its conferences together with the Verein deutscher Philologen und Schulmänner.
For Orientalists, this was a means to of¿cially proclaim their status as philologists.௘97
There were numerous Sanskritists, such as Ewald, Lassen, Justus Olshausen, Hermann
Brockhaus and August Pott, among the society’s founding members, which shows the
growing importance of Sanskrit in comparison with other Oriental languages.௘98 San-
skritists were also represented in the Society’s executive committee, both the promoters
of comparative grammar such as Bopp and Pott and Indologists leaning towards Indian
literature and civilisation, such as Lassen and Ewald, sitting side by side. Another fac-
tor requiring to nuance the opposition between both schools is that A. W. Schlegel and
Lassen’s attacks against comparative grammar were neither about that discipline’s

95 See Annex II, p. 309.

96 Lehmann, p. 98–124. As of 1844, Orientalists were a sub-part of Verein, and the mention und
Orientalisten was added to the name of the organisation in 1850.
97 Mangold, p. 180–186.
98 H. Preissler, Die Anfänge der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Heidelberg 1995 [ex-
cerpt from: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 145, 1995/2, p. 241–327],
p. 48–52.

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Is Indology a Form of Humanism? 97

existence nor the nature of its objectives, but rather targeted its method: not referring
to indigenous grammarians; drawing occurrences from sources that had not been sub-
mitted to critical analysis; blind faith in the works of the British; and an approach so
technical it became opaque and could be drawn into whatever meaning those using
it wanted. When he set the methods of classical philology against comparative gram-
mar, Lassen was not closing the door on the latter, rather intending to make it more
rigorous. In order to achieve this, he thought it ought to be combined with the critical
approach and, above all, placed within a larger horizon by drawing from it data on the
civilisation of ancient India.
In the passage devoted to the “overall ethnological picture” of India in Indische
Alterthumskunde, Lassen listed in detail all the peoples of India and classi¿ed them
into two main branches or ‘lines’ (Stämme): the ‘Aryans’ (Arier) and the ‘Dravidian
peoples’ (Dravida-NishƗda Völker).௘99 The classifying criteria he used were largely
based on linguistic comparativism, since he relied on the established kinship between
Sanskrit, Latin and Greek in order to induce “an original, intimate kinship [of Aryan
Indians] with the peoples that are now called Indo-Germanic”, of which “they are
the last member […] in the Orient”. This typology of peoples was not neutral, it was
coupled with a very clear prioritisation in favour of “Aryan Indians” who, he thought,
did not originate in India but arrived there through migrations. Lassen was convinced
that they brought along with them the civilisation that the natives, i. e. the Dravidian
peoples, were lacking. He therefore considered the “Aryan genre” as the “most impor-
tant and dominant in India, since it represents the civilised people of this country”, and
he presented it as “the true subject of Indian history.”௘100 This discriminating argument
was supposed to justify focus on the Aryans and the Sanskrit language, to the detriment
of the Dravidian world. Lassen added another justi¿cation:
Between the high level of today’s most-advanced Indo-Germanic peoples and
the ¿rst level, which was common to all, there is a large gap, a succession of
several different levels. We cannot determine the place that falls to Indians in
this gradation until we have examined their evolution in every domain. How-
ever, we can already assert that their speci¿c evolution will take on a very
special character; indeed, of all the Indo-Germans, they are the ones with the
particularity of being the most eastern members in a long chain that extends
from the Ganges River to the Atlantic Ocean. The more different the phenomena
we ¿nd in India, the more necessary it will be to remind ourselves that origins
could only be common. This is what this language demonstrates.௘101
Partaking of both the Orient (from the stance of the geographical localisation of its
speakers) and the Occident (for the linguistic link and the anthropological af¿liation
it inferred with the “Indo-Germanic” world), Sanskrit held a singular place. It thus

99 Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, vol. I, p. 422.

100 Ibid., p. 421 and 490.
101 Ibid., p. 497.

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98 I. Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany

gave the science of Indian Antiquity a special slant, since linguistic comparativism
came and complemented the classical practice of Altertumswissenschaft. From then
on, the goal was to assign Sanskrit culture its place within the evolution of the Indo-
European civilisation. This, in turn, was to make it possible to shed light on the ways
taken by this evolution. Integrated into a perspective of historical and critical philol-
ogy, linguistic comparativism gave birth to a new form of comparativism, this time of
cultural nature.

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Before all, a study of the East has taught us the […]

lesson […] that there are other worlds beside our own,
that there are other religions, other mythologies, other
laws, and that the history of philosophy from Thales to
Hegel is not the whole history of human thought. In all
these subjects the East has supplied us with parallels,
and with all that is implied in parallels, viz. the pos-
sibility of comparing, measuring, and understanding.
The comparative spirit is the truly scienti¿c spirit of
our age, nay of all ages.
Friedrich Max Müller, Presidential Address
to the Aryan Section of the International
Congress of Orientalists, 1874௘1

German Indologists truly brought off a balancing act in order to establish the legitimacy
of their domain of research. From the kinship between Indo-European languages, they
induced a common origin of all the people speaking these languages, and this enabled
them to bring India closer to Europe. As a result of this shared belonging, it became
coherent to grant the Indian world – limited, however, to its ‘Aryan’ side – the kind of
philological attention until then reserved to classical Antiquity. Yet, in bringing com-
parativism to the fore, they also sought to extricate Sanskrit studies from the normative
authority of classical philology. This they did by asserting the irreducible speci¿city of
their contribution. First, only the knowledge of Sanskrit could provide solid scienti¿c
bases for linguistic comparisons. Furthermore, as it was subjected to the cultural, geo-
graphic and climatic inÀuence of the Orient, the ‘Aryan’ branch of ‘Indo-Germans’ had
undergone a speci¿c development. This made it a subject of study with no equivalent,
and essential to get a comprehensive view of the Indo-European past. Comparativism
was an inalienable pillar for Indologists, perfectly serving their two-fold strategy of
assimilation and distancing vis-à-vis classical philology.
The distribution of courses between Sanskrit and comparative grammar enables us
to grasp how their intertwining met social expectations, i. e. the expectations of both de-
partmental authorities and students. It also shows that sustaining this system depended

1 Fr. M. Müller, Presidential Address to the Aryan Section of the International Congress of Orien-
talists, in: R. K. Douglas (ed.), Transactions of the Second Session of the International Congress
of Orientalists held in London in September 1874, London 1876, p. 184.

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100 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

on such expectations as well as on scienti¿c attitudes passed on from master to student.

Moreover, as far as epistemology is concerned, the question arises of knowing how
comparative grammar turned to good account the philological works of Indologists.
This methodological pair was already present in the early stages of Indian studies in
Germany (for Friedrich Schlegel, the purpose of comparing languages was to ascribe
a ¿nality to historical knowledge, especially as regards migrations). Indologists had
recourse to linguistic comparativism to con¿rm or in¿rm historical hypotheses through
etymological analyses. In doing that, they necessarily took up the postulate that Euro-
pean languages descended from the same, common language, spoken by one people
before splitting into several branches. Linking philological investigation to linguistic
comparativism thus brought the Romantic issue of origins back to the surface. This is
especially patent in the major attraction that the Vedas (the oldest and most sacred texts
of the Indian corpus) had on German Indologists. Yet since the speculative enthusiasm
of Romantic Indo-mania was supposed to have given way to scienti¿c Indology based
on objective observation and text analysis, the question of origins could no longer be
delved into as such. It was to be formulated differently in order to meet the growingly
insistent demand for empiricism and precision. Resolutely involving German Indol-
ogy in vast historical questionings about peoples and cultures, this new approach was
nevertheless a perilous, fragile synthesis.

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The School of German Indology

The time of amateurishness only delighting in Indian

poetry is past; now, rigorous science can assert its
rights, and I believe that in this domain there remains
a number of materials to be drawn from India in order
to retrace the history of the development of the human
Hermann Brockhaus, Ueber die
Algebra des Bhâskara, 1852௘1

Comparativism as a Token of Legitimacy

Classical philologists were just as suspicious when it came to comparative grammar as
they were about Sanskrit studies. The hostility that Gottfried Hermann (among other
scholars) nursed for linguistic comparativism equalled the disdain he expressed for
Sachphilologie. His accusations of amateurishness were aimed at uncertainties that
were still noticeable in the comparative method. According to him, this method was
sometimes used erratically, giving rise to Àexible, fantastic etymological reconstruc-
tions.௘2 In spite of this long-lasting depreciative attitude amongst numerous classical
philologists, comparative grammar remained an essential ally for Sanskrit studies.
While Sanskrit teaching had well and truly expanded in German universities, these
courses were attended by a very small number of students in relation to the total
number of students in these universities and even the speci¿c number of students in
philosophy faculties. Classical philology remained hegemonic. Generally speaking,
any ¿rst course on Sanskrit attracted a large audience. In Bonn, the course on Indian
literature given out by A. W. Schlegel in 1819 was attended by about ¿fty students,

1 H. Brockhaus, Ueber die Algebra des Bhâskara, Berichte der königlich sächsischen Gesellschaft
der Wissenschaften IV, 1852, p. 19.
2 Nevertheless, there were exceptions amongst classical philologists: August Boeckh, for his part,
spoke out for building bridges between the respective studies of Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. This
was in the lines of his proposal to open up the ¿eld of philology to other domains than that of
‘classical’ philology. Boeckh’s opinion on comparative grammar was expressed at the end of his
career, since he died that same year, in 1837. A. W. Schlegel told Boeckh that he considered him
as “the only realist amongst our philologists” and was pleased that he had not disparaged com-
parative grammar despite the ill use that some people made of it. See Koerner, p. 517–521 (A. W.
Schlegel to Boeckh, Bonn, November 22, 1835) and p. 527–532 (A. W. Schlegel to Boeckh, Bonn,
September 19, 1837).

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102 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

as was the case with Bernstein’s teachings on Sanskrit language and the literature of
India in 1820. Yet in both cases, these numbers dropped in the following semesters.
In 1820, Schlegel only had four students left in his classes on “the bases of the San-
skrit language” and this ¿gure never went up again. The chair in Berlin underwent the
same withdrawal once the ¿rst classes were over: in 1822, when Bopp started to teach
Sanskrit grammar, the number of students dropped down to ¿ve.௘3 In both universities,
the fairly large attendance of the early stages was due to curiosity for the new subject
of study, but it was quite different from truly appropriating the knowledge of Sanskrit;
students were obviously not ready to take the plunge.௘4 Yet even though Sanskritists
themselves were aware that it was useless to train a large number of students, they
nevertheless needed enough of them to justify the continuation of the chair and ensure
the training of specialists for future generations.
In this respect, comparative grammar represented an important asset. In Bonn, only
few students attended the ¿rst classes offered by Lassen as of 1831. This was due to the
philological orientation of Sanskrit studies in this university, as well as the registration
fees involved. But starting in the late 1830s, maybe as a result of the publication of
Bopp’s Vergleichende Grammatik in 1833, the number of students went up to thirteen.
This ¿gure increased slightly in the 1860s, in both public and private courses, when
Johannes Gildemeister succeeded Lassen. While comparative grammar was never a
strong point at Bonn University, at least it ensured Sanskritists an extra audience in
that it incited a number of students to follow courses speci¿cally devoted to Sanskrit
grammar and philology.௘5 In Berlin, where it immediately became the distinctive fea-
ture of the Sanskrit chair, comparative grammar played an even more noticeable role.
The number of students attending Bopp’s public courses on the history of languages
and comparative grammar varied from twenty-¿ve to forty. These ¿gures were smaller
in Sanskrit classes, and further decreased in those on the analysis of Sanskrit texts.
Students envisaged Sanskrit more for its useful role in comparative grammar than for
gaining access to Indian culture.

The Progress of Comparative Grammar

Sanskritists were proud of one innovation: comparative grammar, which had been
made possible via the knowledge of Sanskrit – and moreover elaborated by a Ger-
man. Starting in the mid-19th century, the feeling of modernity attached to this sci-
ence continuously grew, as precise rules were being de¿ned concerning synchronic
comparison and especially the explanation of diachronic evolutions. These advances
can be explained by the growing attention given to the phonetic dimension in compari-
sons, thanks to Jacob Grimm’s works on the history of Germanic dialects. This former

3 I. Sengupta, Shishyas of another order: students in Indology at the universities of Bonn and Berlin,
in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, p. 142–147.
4 This remains true throughout the whole century, and classes were less and less attended as students
went up to higher levels.
5 Ibid., p. 143–145.

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The School of German Indology 103

student of Savigny was looking to historicise the study of the German language, in
the same way as his master had done for the study of law.௘6 He carried out this project
as early as 1819, in his Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar) published in Göt-
tingen, in which he compared the evolution of the different German dialects through
the centuries. In the second edition of this book, published in four volumes between
1822 and 1837, this approach led him to grant priority to the study of phonetic varia-
tions over morphologic changes, enabling him to identify the laws of ‘consonant muta-
tion’ which govern the evolution of Indo-European languages.௘7 Bopp’s Vergleichende
Grammatik, which showed a notable advance on his 1816 Conjugationssystem, was
¿rst published in 1833. The impressive research on the compared etymology of Indo-
European languages made by the comparativist August Pott was published in 1833–
1836.௘8 Comparative grammar was gradually gaining size and credit. The 1850s saw
the publication of comparative and historical studies devoted to sub-ensembles of the
Indo-European family, such as Fr. Miklosisch’s Grammatik der slavischen Sprachen
(Grammar of Slavic Languages, 1852–1853) and J. K. Zeuss’ Keltische Grammatik
(Celtic Grammar) (1853).௘9
With these advances, comparative grammar met more positive reactions on the part
of classical philologists. When Orientalists were, for the ¿rst time, admitted to take part
in the Verein deutscher Philologen und Schulmänner Congress in 1844, this association
was led by Gottfried Hermann, the same man who had expressed his distrust towards
Bopp’s works in earlier decades. In the 1840s, the quarrel between the Sachphilologie
and the Wortphilologie supporters was progressively coming to an end and the sup-
porters of the primacy of linguistics prevailed.௘10 As regards Sanskrit studies, one might
have feared the adverse effects of this relative decline of Sachphilologie, whose view
favoured a developing interest for languages other than Latin and Greek. Yet inasmuch
as Wortphilologie favoured the technical analysis of grammar and etymology, it is no
surprise that the supporters of this type of philology ¿nally opened to linguistic com-
parativism, once it had equipped itself with a better de¿ned scienti¿c apparatus. Certain
classical philologists no longer hesitated to take up comparative grammar. This was
the case with Georg Curtius, a former student of Bopp who specialised in historical
and comparative linguistics of classical languages (Latin, Greek), devoting an essay to
comparative grammar in 1845௘11 and teaching it successively in Prague, Kiel and then
in Leipzig, starting in 1861.௘12

6 O. Zeller, Problemgeschichte der vergleichenden (indogermanischen) Sprachwissenschaft, Osna-

brück 1967, p. 88 on.
7 Auroux/Bernard/Boulle, p. 159–162.
8 A. Fr. Pott, Etymologische Forschungen auf dem Gebiete der Indo-Germanischen Sprachen mit
besonderem Bezug auf die Lautumwandlung […], Lemgo 1833–1836, 2 vol.
9 Auroux/Bernard/Boulle, p. 164.
10 Hültenschmidt, p. 89.
11 G. Curtius, Die Sprachvergleichung in ihrem Verhältniss zur classischen Philologie, Berlin 1845.
12 Stache-Rosen, p. 32.

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104 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Theodor Benfey, the holder of the Extraordinariat in Sanskrit and comparative

grammar in Göttingen as of 1848, provides an even more striking example. He only
belatedly specialised in Sanskrit, after classical philology studies in Göttingen and
Munich. Having had to teach for many years as a Privatdozent in Göttingen because
of his Jewish faith, he converted to Christianity the very year when he obtained his
Extraordinariat. He nevertheless had to wait another fourteen years before acceding
to Ordinariat in that same university, in 1862. Fully convinced by the methods of the
comparative science of languages, Benfey set up, in Göttingen, a true school of com-
parativist linguists, whose works were not necessarily centred on Sanskrit. In 1869,
when Maximilian II, King of Bavaria, asked him to write a History of the Science of
Language and Oriental Philology in Germany,௘13 he chose to give a central place to
linguistic comparativism, which he quali¿ed as the “modern science of language” (neu-
ere Sprachwissenschaft) because, according to him, it represented the most advanced
state in the study of languages.௘14 In the ‘Introduction’ of this comprehensive historical
survey, he presented comparative grammar as a true epistemological break, to the point
that the history of the whole science of language, until the early 19th century, was but
a preparatory phase for the rise of comparativism. Bringing back the focus on that last
period of the science of language was therefore fully justi¿ed:
The period that we should be taking into consideration presents a character that
is essentially different from the preceding period in the history of the science [of
language]; the means that enable us to promote the latter period are accumulat-
ing more than ever before; new methods of treatment have asserted themselves.
Among them, the historical and comparative methods have especially contrib-
uted to the surprisingly fast elaboration of this new branch of knowledge; […]
in this short lapse of time, we have obtained results that override everything that
the history of the whole past can provide. In short, this period presents such a
contrast with all preceding activity in this domain that it is undoubtedly entitled
to claim special importance.௘15
To make comparative grammar inescapable, Benfey insisted upon the German pre-emi-
nence in the matter, saluting Friedrich Schlegel as the “profound, spiritual pioneer of this
new science”, Bopp as the “brilliant founder of the comparative method”, Grimm as the
“just as brilliant founder of the historical method”, Humboldt as the man who ¿rst compared
“these new methods with a philosophical approach of the life of languages and, ¿nally,
August Pott as the “greatest connoisseur of languages” – all these scholars rating amongst
“the most brilliant stars in the ¿rmament of the German mind”. In brief, this fully justi¿ed
considering the comparative science of language as an “essentially German science”.௘16

13 Benfey, Geschichte, p. 13.

14 Ibid., p. 7.
15 Ibid., p. 13.
16 Ibid., p. 15–16. On the part of Theodor Benfey, a converted Jew, this expression can also be un-
derstood as the sign of an effort to be assimilated.

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The School of German Indology 105

The Development of Chairs

Judging from the multiplication of courses in comparative grammar in Germany, al-
ways in connection with Sanskrit courses in Indological chairs, labelling it a “Ger-
man science,” as Benfey did, was not exaggerated. In the 1850s and 1860s a number
of posts for ordinary professors were established, most of which were the extension
of pre-existing Extraordinariate. Among the extraordinary professors who had been
appointed in the 1840s, Hermann Brockhaus became an ordinary professor in his
University of Leipzig in 1848, as was the case with Rudolf Roth in Tübingen in 1856,
and Theodor Benfey in Göttingen in 1862. These full-Àedged chairs added to those
that already existed in Halle, Bonn, Breslau, Greifswald, Heidelberg and, of course,
Berlin. One should also mention the nomination of Johannes Gildemeister as an ex-
traordinary professor in Bonn in 1844, in addition to the Ordinariat held by Lassen.
Likewise, at Berlin University, in 1856 an Extraordinariat was created in addition to
Bopp’s Ordinariat, which was held by Albrecht Weber until he succeeded Bopp as
an ordinary professor in 1867. Lastly, posts were created in two other universities: in
Iena – starting in 1857 August Schleicher taught the comparative science of language
as an Ordinarius – and in Munich – where a full chair of Indology was created for
Martin Haug in 1868. The weight granted respectively to comparative grammar and
Indological studies proper varied considerably from one chair to the next. Yet both
disciplines were almost always associated, all the more so given that most teachers had
bene¿ted from courses in comparative grammar at some point in their own training.௘17
In fact, this link intensi¿ed as chairs in Sanskrit were created, distinct from chairs in
Orientalism – the latter being henceforth reserved for Semitic languages (Hebrew and
Arabic), while Sanskrit was related to Indo-European languages.௘18
At the same time, in Great Britain there were but few courses related to Sanskrit
studies or comparative grammar. In the region of London, the East India College in
Haileybury, where there was a chair in Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani, closed down
in 1858. All that was left were the classes at London University, which were regularly
given to German professors, Friedrich Rosen, Theodor Goldstücker, Julius Eggeling
and Ernst Haas each succeeding the other. At Oxford, a chair in Sanskrit established
thanks to a donation of Colonel Joseph Boden in 1827, was only occupied in 1832 by
Horace Haymann Wilson, followed by Sir Monier Monier-Williams in 1860, while
a chair in comparative grammar was allocated to the famous German Sanskritist and
comparatist Friedrich Max Müller, in 1868.௘19 It was also a German, Theodor Aufrecht,
who ¿rst held the chair of Sanskrit and comparative grammar created in Edinburgh in

17 Ibid., p. 419.
18 Mangold, p. 102: this situation had the effect of delaying the emancipation of Persian teaching.
Persian being an Indo-European language, it remained af¿liated to Sanskrit.
19 Beforehand, starting in 1854 Müller had held a post as professor of European languages and lit-
erature at Oxford. Sir Monier-Williams had been a professor at Haileybury since 1844, until the
place closed down in 1858, before holding the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit. Incidentally, this
was a post he obtained after ¿erce competition with Müller.

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106 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

1862; Julius Eggeling was the second holder of the chair, from 1875 to 1914. A last
chair was created in 1867 in Cambridge.
In France, the situation had hardly evolved since the beginning of the century. The
chair at the Collège de France, held by Chézy from 1814 until his death in 1832, was
then occupied by Eugène Burnouf, the former opponent of the “Àorists”, who enjoyed
an international reputation and played a considerable role in the knowledge of Bud-
dhism in Europe. Yet after his death, in 1852, the chair fell into decline for a good ten
years, during which only junior lecturers continued to ensure the teaching.௘20 In 1868,
Sanskrit and comparative grammar entered the Sorbonne thanks to classes given by
Abel Bergaigne, who also proposed Sanskrit classes in the 4th section (“Philological
Sciences”) of the recently-opened Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. At university he
was simply a junior lecturer, only obtaining a post of senior lecturer in 1877.௘21

Comparativism as a Methodological Principle: August Schleicher

German Indologists often found themselves in delicate situations. Their career perspec-
tives were limited by the restriction of posts to universities, and the growing competi-
tion between candidates; the waiting time was therefore generally very long before one
obtained an Extraordinariat and even more so an Ordinariat. This precarious situation
gave rise to doubts amongst the most brilliant and motivated students.௘22
Nevertheless, in the mid-19th century Germany had more than caught up on France
and Great-Britain. Besides Grimm and Benfey, one must include August Schleicher,
the holder of an Ordinariat at Iena University in 1857, among the scholars who ac-
tively sought to promote comparative grammar by striving to establish more systematic
comparison rules. This promotion enterprise unquestionably contributed extra support
to comparative grammar, even though the latter also owes it a large part of its later
disrepute, because of the linguistic naturalism championed by Schleicher. After study-
ing Arabic with Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer in Leipzig, Schleicher had completed
his training in Tübingen, following the classes of the Hegelian, Protestant theologian
Ferdinand Christian Baur as well as studying Sanskrit, Persian and Semitic languages
with Heinrich Ewald. He then perfected his academic course in Bonn, namely in the
seminar in classical philology led by Friedrich Ritschl and Friedrich Welcker, as well
as Lassen’s Sanskrit classes. Finally, on the latter’s advice, he launched into learning
Slavic and Baltic languages. Drawing strength from this linguistic mastery, he always
taught Sanskrit in relation to comparative grammar.௘23

20 This was the case with Théodore Pavie, from 1853 until 1857. Philippe Edouard Foucaux (Tibe-
tologist) succeeded him as junior lecturer from 1857 until 1862, before occupying the chair in
Sanskrit language and literature from 1862 until 1894.
21 There were also a few courses in the provinces (see Annex I, p. 295).
22 About the doubts that assailed students as regards to the prospects of their studies, see Fick/Selle,
p. 193 (Roth to Ewald, Paris, December 26, 1843)
23 P. Tort, Evolutionnisme et linguistique, suivi de August Schleicher: La Théorie de Darwin et la
science du langage. De l’importance du langage pour l’histoire naturelle de l’homme, Paris 1980,
p. 43–44.

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The School of German Indology 107

In his works, Schleicher granted more importance than Bopp had to the existence
of phonetic regularities. Noting the historical dimension that comparative linguistic
studies had gradually acquired, he based himself on “fundamental forms” (Grundfor-
men) supposed to have preceded the various forms that a given word took from one
language to the next. He sought to reconstruct an original Indo-European language by
way of induction, thus bringing back to life the quest for a language mother for other
languages. Admittedly, he took care to insist on the nature – not attested to – of re-
constructed forms, which should simply be used as work hypotheses, i. e. instruments
enabling one to shed light on subsequent evolutions. Yet to him, hypothesis did not
mean conjecture. Since reconstruction was done on the basis of phonetic laws, it gave
one the feeling of gaining access to an origin of Indo-European languages that was tan-
gible – at least more palpable than that dangled by speculative history.௘24 Searching for
Grundformen clari¿ed the situation of the various Indo-European languages in relation
to one another, in that it enabled people to avoid being drawn into analysing Sanskrit
forms as though they were at the origin of forms attested to in other languages of the
Indo-European family, on the grounds of their antiquity. Consequently, Schleicher went
all the way through the linguistic family metaphor, representing its different branches
and evolutions in the shape of a “genealogical tree of languages” (Stammbaum der
Sprachen).௘25 This pattern insisted on the position of ancestor held by Indo-European,
or rather – since it was the term that had asserted itself in Germany despite Bopp’s
reservations – by reconstructed “Indo-Germanic” (Indogermanisch). He presented the
emergence of each branch of the “Indo-German” family as the result of its separation
from the common trunk at a given time. In a representation of linguistic evolution
which was no longer diffusionist but genealogic and unilinear, he also showed that
each branch gave rise to new rami¿cations.௘26
While the “tree of languages” was represented for the ¿rst time in 1861–1862,
in Schleicher’s opus magnum, the Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der
indogermanischen Sprachen (Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of Indo-
Germanic Languages), this genealogic conception of linguistic rami¿cations had been
expressed as early as his ¿rst works, namely in an article “On the value in comparing
languages” in 1846.௘27 In this text, he stood up for linguistic comparativism against its
many detractors. He differentiated himself from certain hazardous uses, for instance
attempts at deriving Latin from German on the excuse that ursus (‘bear’ in Latin)
would directly stem from Ur-sau (German: pre-historical sow). In opposition to such
fantastic etymologies, he asserted: “By language comparison, we only mean the true,

24 Ibid., p. 19.
25 Auroux/Bernard/Boulle, p. 164–165.
26 Trautmann, p. 5–10. For all that, Schleicher perfectly admitted the existence of contact and inÀu-
ence phenomena between languages.
27 A. Schleicher, Ueber den Werth der Sprachvergleichung. Eine Rede, vorgetragen am 27. Juni
1846 in der acad. Aula zu Bonn, von A. Schleicher, Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes
VII, 1846, p. 25–47.

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108 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

historical observation of languages, in accordance with reason, and not the kind of play
on words that make light of evolution corresponding to historical laws.”௘28
The concepts of “evolution”, “reason” and “historical laws” are not trivial; rather
they reveal the two-fold inÀuence exerted on Schleicher by Hegelianism on the one
hand and biological evolutionism on the other.௘29 According to Schleicher, “objects
of nature”, i. e. plants and other living beings, are submitted to an evolution which is
governed by laws, and this evolution itself is tantamount to law since it concerns ab-
solutely every one of these “objects of nature”. Schleicher thus claimed to show how
language and these “objects of nature” work in perfectly similar ways. He therefore
used the life sciences as a model for the science of language. This reference was not
new on the part of linguists preoccupied with comparisons and typology. Nevertheless,
he established a true relation of similarity between language and the organic formations
to be found in nature: “Language is no exception to the way organic formations work,
and its existence meets immanent laws of development.”௘30 The acknowledgement of
“organic laws” in the evolution of languages demonstrates the presence of “reason in-
herent to the work itself, even in the most muddled linguistic mixtures.” It is therefore
perfectly legitimate to claim a “philosophy of the history of language”. Since language
is produced by the minds of men, this philosophy must not content itself with re-
searching the “laws of language development” but also look into the “relation between
language and the human mind.” This is where linguistic comparison assumes all its
The comparison of languages is in a position to open up the way for us to ac-
quire historical knowledge which goes back to the original time when Indo-
Germanic peoples were still united and residing in their original birthplace, in
Asia. Where the true historical tradition stops, historians are faced with the
dif¿cult task of uncovering the historical heritage behind the poetic creations
of mythology. Yet where this uncertain light also ceases to shine, language fur-
ther leads us, faithfully, towards the most covered over. From now on, we can
hold for certain that the mythological period does not belong to the original
state of peoples but represents a relatively later intellectual stage. This is how
language provides important clues to the cultural and historical state of this
original, Indo-German people.௘31

28 Ibid., p. 32.
29 This two-fold inÀuence is incongruous, to say the least, since Hegelianism reasserts the value
of internal ¿nality, while evolutionism is based on analyses in terms of causality. The role of
biological evolutionism in Schleicher’s thought nevertheless became even more evident as his
career developed, since he came to explicitly claim to take his inspiration from Darwin’s theories;
therefore, his mention of “evolution” must be well and truly understood in the sense of evolution-
ism, not only as the heritage of the Herderian notion of ‘evolution’.
30 Schleicher, Ueber den Werth, p. 35.
31 Ibid., p. 39.

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The School of German Indology 109

Combining empirical and inductive evolutionism with a philosophy of language, as

well as adding to its biological de¿nition a de¿nition of language in the nature of a
product of the human mind, led Schleicher to envisage linguistic comparisons as a
means to extricate the characteristics of the Indo-European world from the origins.
Concretely, this consisted in spotting vocables common to the most ancient languages
of the Indo-European family. Whenever a term was to be found in all these languages,
one could therefore conclude that the reality it designated had already existed before
the separation of the various peoples from the common base. The coincidence in the
terms used for numbers in the various Indo-European languages until 999 suggests that
Indo-Europeans could count at least that far, which gives an indication of their intel-
lectual development. Used in the domain of history and culture, comparativism was no
longer exclusively linked to linguistic investigations but became a true methodologi-
cal principle: “No one will contest that a comparative perspective not only presents
an in¿nite advantage for the study of languages, but it is also very pro¿table in other
spheres of historical research.”௘32

The Birth of Vedic Studies

In the mid-19th century, comparativism thus gradually asserted itself vis-à-vis classical
philology. The extension of its principle from linguistic studies to cultural and histori-
cal investigations granted it a place of growing signi¿cance in the activity of Ger-
man philologists, especially Sanskritists. Amongst the various factors of this change,
history had a central role, not only because very ancient periods were subjects for
study but also because awareness of the depth of historical time and its effects wid-
ened the horizon of comparativism. This consistent historical concern brought about
strong convergences between authors whose approaches seemed, a priori, to be taking
opposite directions. Such was the case with Lassen and Schleicher. Sachphilologie
drew Lassen’s work towards historical science, leading him to be interested in the text
realia in order to draw a complete picture of ancient Indian civilisation. A contrario,
although Schleicher was a student of Lassen, his works rather pertain to the philoso-
phy of history, considering texts as reservoirs of lexical occurrences with a view to
reconstruct a hypothetical state of the Indo-European language and culture before
their rami¿cation.

32 Ibid., p. 27. The use of comparativism for historical purposes had already been championed by
A. W. Schlegel in 1842, although with a different view. It was not a matter of reconstituting the
original state but of following the various Indo-Germanic peoples in their migrations and the
development of their civilisation: “Until now we have only contemplated languages as a means
to draw the genealogical tree of nations properly, and to determine the degrees of collateral kin-
ship. However, a detailed examination of the very conformities of these languages could lead us
to discover the traditions, ideas and useful arts that colonists brought along with them from their
common motherland to their new dwellings, and they would serve to spread new information on
the beginning of civilisation.” (A. W. Schlegel, De l’origine des Hindous, in: Essais littéraires et
historiques, Bonn 1842, p. 518)

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110 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Both scholars nevertheless agreed on several points. For both Lassen and Schleicher,
the principal merit of Sanskrit, and the culture attached to it, was its especially ancient
position in the history of the Indo-European family. This meant taking possession of
all the links that made up the historical chain in the linguistic and cultural development
of the family. They pictured history as a succession of progressive stages.௘33 In the case
of Lassen, this was linked to his rooting in historicism, which remained reliant on the
notion of evolution as suggested by Herder. In the case of Schleicher, it resulted from a
two-fold inÀuence incongruously associating biological evolutionism and Hegelianism,
the latter being characterized by a dialectic, ¿nalist representation of history. Despite
this signi¿cant difference, they agreed about the place of their philological and lin-
guistic practice, mainly concerned with identifying historical principles. Furthermore,
and although to different degrees since Schleicher remained rooted in basic naturalism,
each of them considered language and culture – literature, social organisation and reli-
gious practices – as products (therefore, reÀections) of the human mind. Consequently,
philological and linguistic investigation shared the same purpose of apprehending the
way the human mind works. This objective explains their strong interest in the Vedas,
which supposedly contained the most ancient linguistic and cultural materials in the
Indo-European family.௘34

Linguistic Comparativism at the Service of the Historical Approach

The tendencies that were asserting themselves in German Indology in the middle of the
century are perfectly illustrated by the arguments that enabled the Indologist A. Weber
to obtain an Extraordinariat and then an Ordinariat at Berlin University, from 1856
until 1867. These arguments reÀected the growing attention that German Indologists
paid to the Vedas. They also revealed how, in crystallising as a methodological prin-
ciple, comparativism had become inseparable from Sanskrit studies while paradoxi-
cally it held a less dominant place as it was reduced to the role of a simple instrument.
Weber did not originate from the Boppian Indological tradition. As a student in Breslau
from 1842 to 1844, he had studied English, Roman, Germanic, classical and Oriental
languages. A. Fr. Stenzler, his teacher in Oriental languages, had followed Bopp’s
teachings in Berlin before joining the Bonn school (as a student of A. W. Schlegel
and Lassen), and was known for applying the critical methods of classical philology
to Sanskrit texts. When Stenzler met again with A. W. Schlegel in Paris after a study
sojourn in England, the latter even found him completely stripped of Bopp’s inÀu-
ence (“ganz entboppt”௘35). Weber mainly followed the path shown by Stenzler and
chose Bonn University to complete his Breslau training and study with Lassen and
Gildemeister. Weber also followed Bopp’s courses in Berlin for a semester, which
shows that it was impossible to make a career in Sanskrit without being armed with

33 Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, vol. I, p. 421, distinguishes inferior and superior stages of
civilisation (“tiefste Stufe”, “höchster Grad”).
34 Schleicher, Ueber den Werth, p. 28.
35 Kirfel, Briefwechsel, p. 213 (A. W. Schlegel to Lassen, Paris, November 5, 1831).

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The School of German Indology 111

comparative grammar. However, he went back to Breslau in 1845 to prepare his doc-
torate thesis under Stenzler’s direction. This work was published the same year, with
a dedication especially addressed to Stenzler, Lassen and Gildemester. It dealt with
the Yajurveda,௘36 a Vedic text made of liturgical formulas that came with comments in
the White Yajurveda section while there were none in the Black Yajurveda section. In
thus tackling one of the four Vedas, Weber acted as a pioneer in Germany. He pursued
this effort, launching into the publication of the complete White Yajurveda, which he
achieved in three volumes, respectively published in 1852, 1855 and 1859 in Berlin
and London, the East India Company having agreed to ¿nance this enterprise.
From 1848, he worked at Berlin University as a Privatdozent. In 1855, he applied
for an Extraordinariat in “philology of Ancient India” (altindische Philologie), point-
ing out that in order to master all the material accumulated in a few decades, the only
solution was to create specialised chairs. He particularly insisted on the importance of
the Vedic writings. These concerned sacred texts that made up the historical basis for
the religious edi¿ce of modern India, and therefore they let one hope to return to India
the true foundations of its religion, and thus rescue it from its spiritual decline. These
arguments bore fruit and he became extraordinary teacher in 1856. A new promotion
followed in 1867, with his nomination as an ordinary professor, both due to Bopp’s
failing health and the very large number of works Weber had done in the domain of
Indology in general and Vedic studies in particular. While he had applied for the cre-
ation of an Ordinariat in Indian philology in addition to that of Bopp, the council of
the philosophy faculty decided that his chair would come as a replacement for the chair
in oriental languages and comparative science of language held by Bopp. Amidst the
council, such classical philologists as August Boeckh and Moritz Haupt held a domi-
nant position; they deemed that linguistic comparativism did not justify a full chair
but should only provide data to classical, Indological and German studies, the latter
nevertheless keeping literature and history studies as their main objective.௘37 The task
of teaching the principles of the comparative science of language within the framework
of an Extraordinariat, fell to the linguist Heymann Steinthal, while all Weber had to do,
in his courses focussing on the literature and culture of ancient India, was to integrate
the elements he deemed useful.
At the same time, the acknowledged importance of linguistic comparativism on the
plane of methodology was harmful for the autonomy of Indology, since it was no longer
envisaged as anything other than an instrument at the service of other philological prac-
tices. The growing interest in the Vedas was instrumental in this evolution. By some
irony of fate, the principle of comparativism had led people to consider Vedic texts as
the oldest archives of the Indo-European family, showing the importance of the Vedic
corpus and making its study a priority. In regards to this, even comparativism could

36 A. Weber, Yajurvedae specimen cum commentario, Breslau 1845.

37 I. Sengupta, State, University and Indology: the politics of the chair of Indology at German uni-
versities in the nineteenth century, in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, p. 281.

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112 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

only play a subordinate role, either guaranteeing the signi¿cance of the Vedas in the
common history of Indo-Europeans, or guiding people in the exploration of these texts.

The Slow Debuts of Vedic Study

The remarkable development of Vedic studies, as of the 1840s, is to be related to the dif-
¿culties they had met earlier on. The fascination German scholars had for the antiquity
of the Vedas was furthermore heightened by the mystery they had long been enveloped
in. Friedrich Schlegel had prophesied this evolution in 1808, when he deemed obvious
that “the Vedas, in that they represent what is most ancient and mysterious, [would]
arouse the most curiosity”௘38 on the part of scholars. The Hindus have considered the
Vedas as sacred until now. Only men from the three highest castes of Hindu society
can be initiated to their knowledge: the Brahmans, the K‫܈‬atriyas and the VaiĞyas, who,
after their initiation, are considered as “born twice” (dvijas). Therefore, men of the
fourth caste, that of the Ğnjdras, as well as outcastes (untouchables) are excluded from
Vedic knowledge. In theory, since they did not belong to the caste system, Europeans
were considered as untouchables and could not have access to it either. Furthermore,
only the Brahmans were (and still are) authorised to specialise in the teaching of the
Vedas; the other dvija castes could only study and recite them. It is therefore under-
standable that when the British showed their intention to learn Sanskrit, the pandits they
used as helpers were not overanxious to give them the material of these sacred books.
Not to mention that the Vedic language, a very archaic form of Sanskrit, presented an
undeniably higher degree of dif¿culty than classical Sanskrit, and the Vedas featured
unknown gods and a whole mental world that was foreign to 18th century Europeans.
This is why none of the Indian texts published or translated in the early stages of
Indology belonged to Vedic literature. A limited number of texts held people’s atten-
tion: GƯtƗ Govinda, the Laws of Manu, KƗlidƗsa’s ĝakuntalƗ, the HitopadeĞa fables, the
BhagavadgƯtƗ, the central part in the MahƗbhƗrata, the NƗla episode from that same
epic, as well as whole sections of the RƗmƗya۬a.௘39 This homogeneity was emphasized
by the practice of “relay works”, that is to say translations of translations. To all this
should be added certain scepticism about the very existence of these famous Vedas.
Admittedly, through missionaries, some – partial – copies had reached Europe since
the beginning of the 18th century – a ‫ۿ‬gveda in Grantha script was sent to Paris in
1731; between 1732 and 1735, Father P. Le Gac sent a ‫ۿ‬gveda, an AitareyabrƗhma۬a
and a Yajurveda to Paris – yet knowledge on India and the Sanskrit language was too
limited for people to know exactly what these concerned.௘40 Nevertheless, amongst the
manuscripts listed at the Royal Library in 1739, there were other copies of the Vedas,
made by Father Calmette.௘41 Lastly, at the end of the 18th century, Jones attested that

38 Fr. Schlegel, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit, p. 151.

39 L. Alsdorf, Deutsch-indische Geistesbeziehungen, Heidelberg/Berlin/Magdeburg 1942, p. 88.
40 J. Filliozat, Deux cents ans d’indianisme, p. 113.
41 J. Filliozat, La naissance et l’essor de l’indianisme, Bulletin semestriel des Etudes Indochinoises
XXIX/4, n. s., 4e trimestre 1954, p. 271.

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The School of German Indology 113

Colonel Polier owned “a complete copy of the four Vedas, in eleven large volumes”.௘42
Yet missionaries did not fully master classical Sanskrit, and therefore could not un-
derstand the Vedic language. In India, Anquetil Duperron could only obtain a Persian
version of the Upani‫܈‬ads, the speculative texts of late Vedism. The texts thus collected
always came in fragments or in the form of translations whose authenticity and confor-
mity with the Vedic original could not be con¿rmed. The doubts that was forming, as
to the existence of the Vedas, was further sustained by the hoaxes of which Europeans
were victims in the early days of Indology. In the 1780s, Lieutenant Francis Wilford, a
member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, was deceived by a Brahman who had
considerably modi¿ed the Sanskrit texts he passed on to the British Indologists, so that
the latter would ¿nd what they were looking for, i. e. allusions to Biblical characters
such as Adam or Abraham, likely to demonstrate the existence of links between India
and the Christian world. The reliability of native informers was thus marred for a long
time.௘43 Such scandals were not always connected with the pandits, but in every case,
the longer it took to reveal them, the stronger they were and the more distrust they
caused. The Ezour Vedam published in 1778, at which Voltaire marvelled so much, was
not unmasked for certain as a sham until thirty years later, in 1817, when elements were
brought in that proved that the text stemmed from missionary circles.௘44
In spite of all these dif¿culties, people were starting to gather more and more
precise information on the Vedas, as is shown in Colebrooke’s essay, published in
1805, “On the Vedas, or Sacred Writings of the Hindus”. In Benares, he had obtained
the almost complete Vedic texts as well as the comments on the ‫ۿ‬gveda by the Indian
sage SƗya৆ƗcƗrya.௘45 In his text, he gave a detailed and systematic description of Vedic
literature in its entirety and explained the distinction between the four Vedas on the
one hand and, on the other, the BrƗhma۬as, Ɩra۬yakas, Snjtras and the Upani‫܈‬ads that
all were respectively linked with each of these main books. He also presented the his-
tory of the composition and recitation techniques of these writings, and scattered his
book with many excerpts translated into English, thus demonstrating his ¿rst-hand
knowledge of the texts. Nevertheless, he ended up his essay on a doubtful note as to
the future of Vedic studies:

42 A Swiss protestant of French origin, born in Lausanne in 1741, he ¿rst worked as an engineer at
the service of the East India Company in India starting in 1753, then as an engineer and architect
at the service of an Indian prince, from 1773 to 1782, before he settled in Lucknow as a painting
and manuscript collector. When he returned to France, he was murdered by thieves in 1795. His
son bequeathed his manuscripts to the Bibliothèque nationale in 1827. See Windisch, Geschichte,
p. 25; Kejariwal, p. 98.
43 Kejariwal, p. 43.
44 L’Ezour-Vedam ou Ancien Commentaire du Vedam, Contenant l’exposition des opinions reli-
gieuses & philosophiques des Indiens. Traduit du Samscretan par un Brame, Yverdon 1778, 2 vol.
45 H. T. Colebrooke, On the Vedas, or the Sacred Writings of the Hindus, Asiatic Researches VIII,
Calcutta 1805, p. 369–476, repr. in: H. T. Colebrooke, Miscellaneous Essays by H. T. Colebrooke,
vol. 1, London 1837, p. 9–113, and p. 10 about the acquisition of the manuscripts in Benares.

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114 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

The preceding description may serve to convey some notion of the Védas. They
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. The ancient dialect in which they are composed, and especially that
of the three ¿rst Védas, is extremely dif¿cult and obscure: and, though curious,
as the parent of a more polished and re¿ned language (the classical Sanscrit),
its dif¿culties must long continue to prevent such an examination of the whole
Védas, as would be requisite for extracting all that is remarkable and important
in those voluminous works. But they well deserve to be occasionally consulted
by the oriental scholar.௘46

The reluctance expressed in this paragraph had a considerable echo among successive
generations of Indologists in the various European countries.௘47 They doubtless delayed
the start of Vedic studies; at the same time, in that it provided proof that these writings
were authentic, as well as a very precise image of them, this essay also furnished a
basis for initial works,௘48 such as those undertaken by Friedrich Rosen. A theology, law
and Oriental languages student in Leipzig, Rosen studied with Bopp in Berlin for two
more years, and then with Silvestre de Sacy in Paris, before he was ¿nally appointed
to the chair of Oriental languages at London University, which he occupied from in
1827 until 1830. That same year, he published a book entitled Rigvedae Specimen,
collecting the translations of seven hymns and conceived as the ¿rst step towards the
complete publication of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. Unfortunately, this project was interrupted, due
to the untimely death of the young scholar who was only able to achieve the Latin
translation of the ¿rst book of the ‫ۿ‬gveda.௘49
Rosen explicitly considered Colebrooke as his mentor. On the latter’s advice, he
started to examine the instructions in native Sanskrit grammars. This enabled him to
get through the great dif¿culties of the Vedic language.௘50 From his acquaintance with
Colebrooke’s works, he drew the idea that the knowledge of the Vedas was necessary

46 Ibid., p. 113.
47 Colebrooke’s Essays were translated into German in the 1840s: L. Poley, Henry Thomas Cole-
brooke’s Abhandlung über die heiligen Schriften der Indier. Nebst Fragmenten der ältesten re-
ligiösen Dichtungen der Indier. Aus dem Englischen übersetzt von Dr. Ludwig Poley, Leipzig
1847. A French translation had been published earlier on: G. Pauthier, Essais sur la philosophie
des Hindous, Paris 1833.
48 In 1827, in a letter to Wilson dated December 24, 1827 (quoted in Windisch, Geschichte, p. 36),
Colebrooke noted, with a certain amount of bitterness: “Careless and indifferent as our country-
men are, I think, nevertheless, that you and I may derive some complacent feelings from the
reÀection that, following the footsteps of Sir W. Jones, we have with so little aid of collaborators,
and so little encouragement, opened nearly every avenue, and left it to foreigners, who are taking
up the clue we have furnished, to complete the outline of what we have sketched.”
49 Fr. Rosen (ed.), Rigveda-Sanhita, Liber primus, Sanskritè et latinè, ed. Fridericus Rosen, London/
Paris 1838. Rosen evoked his intention to publish the ‫ۿ‬k in a letter to Bopp sent from Detmold,
on October 13, 1830 (Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 196).
50 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 191 (Letter from Rosen to Bopp, London, February 26, 1830).

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to understand Indian language in its truest and deepest sense, and Indian literature as
a whole. In the Preface which he had planned to join to his translation of the ‫ۿ‬gveda,
he intended to deal with the most ancient stages of the Vedic world and religion.௘51
This clearly brought to mind the purpose Colebrooke had assigned to Orientalism in a
speech he made in 1823: according to him, the ¿rst traces of the history of humankind
were to be found in Asia, more precisely “the history of the human mind which [was]
most diligently to be investigated: the discoveries of the wise, the inventions of the
ingenious, and the contrivances of the skilful.”௘52 Rosen was able to take up the torch
of Vedic studies, which Colebrooke had ended up giving up due to their scale and
dif¿culty, because in the meantime great progress had been made in Sanskrit philol-
ogy. Furthermore, he perfectly mastered comparative grammar௘53 and he had retained
the lessons of the critical philological approach, as applied by Colebrooke and the
upholders of the Bonn school.௘54 Once again, rooting the philological approach in the
breeding ground of comparative grammar proved to be fecund, paving the way for the
study of the Vedas.

Eugène Burnouf’s Incentive Role

All European Sanskritists paid great attention to Rosen’s works. However, his early
death kept him for truly having an incentive role in the study of the Vedas. This role
was to be played by Eugène Burnouf, a professor of Sanskrit at the Collège de France
as of 1832. When, following his stay in Paris, Rosen settled in England, Burnouf
closely followed his advances in the Vedic domain.௘55 Indeed, he himself was highly
interested in Vedic studies, hoping they would provide help for works on the Zend
language, still hardly known at that time.௘56 Burnouf got better acquainted with Rosen
during a study sojourn in British libraries. He was full of praise for his personality and
his scienti¿c qualities, and was enthusiastic about the ‫ۿ‬gveda pages that Rosen had
translated and let him read before they were published.௘57
The intellectual af¿nity between both men was probably enhanced by Burnouf’s fa-
miliarity with the German philological science. This is con¿rmed by the letters he sent
to his family in Paris while he stayed in London, insisting on his intellectual closeness

51 Fr. Rosen, Rig-Vedae Specimen, London 1830, preface p. 4–5.

52 H. T. Colebrooke, A discourse read at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and
Ireland, on the 15th of March 1823, London,1823, repr. in: Colebrooke, Miscellaneous Essays,
p. 3.
53 Rosen had devoted his doctorate thesis, written under Bopp’s direction, to Sanskrit roots (Corporis
Radicum Sanscritarum prolusio, Berlin 1826) and he wrote another book on the subject (Radices
sanscritae illustratas, ed. F. Rosen, Berlin 1827).
54 Rosen had notably made friends with Stenzler, whom he had met in London. In a letter to Bopp
(Koblenz, September 11, 1830), Rosen attested that his works had been positively received by
A. W. Schlegel, Lassen and Gildemeister (Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 195).
55 L. Delisle (ed.) Choix de lettres d’Eugène Burnouf, 1825–1853 suivi d’une bibliographie, Paris
1891, p. 90 f. (letters addressed by Burnouf to Mohl in the early summer 1830).
56 Ibid., p. 99 (Burnouf to Lassen, Paris, June 24, 1830).
57 Ibid., p. 278 (Burnouf to Lassen, Paris, September 9, 1835).

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116 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

with his German colleagues, in opposition to the British Orientalists’ ways of thinking
and acting.௘58 Eugène’s own father, Jean-Louis Burnouf, a professor of Latin eloquence
at the Collège de France since 1817, had started to learn Sanskrit with Chézy and
taken a close interest in the common origins of Greek and Sanskrit, as well as Bopp’s
works on comparative grammar. The correspondence between Jean-Louis Burnouf and
the Berlin Sanskritist (whom he knew personally) indicates that he planned to have
the 1816 Conjugationssystem and 1820 Analytical Comparison published in French.௘59
He soon introduced his son to the principles of comparative grammar.௘60 Although the
translation projects did not succeed, Eugène Burnouf opened a course in the discipline
at the Ecole normale supérieure in 1829 – a ¿rst in France.௘61 He also devoted various
reviews to the Vergleichende Grammatik, in the July, August and October 1833 issues
of the Journal des Savants. His correspondence shows that he was fully up-to-date with
the quarrels that Indology was experiencing in Germany. His closest links were with
Lassen, with whom he had an understanding on both the personal and scienti¿c planes
(together, they published Essai sur le Pali ou langue sacrée de la Presqu’île au-delà
du Gange, in 1826). This found expression in several letters where Burnouf denounced
the “great army of Berlin”௘62 – i. e. Bopp’s school – for its hard-line authoritarianism
and its “deadly boring, pedantic tone”.௘63
In spite of his good knowledge of and taste for comparative grammar, it seems that
Burnouf chose Bopp’s side. In certain respects, his choice to “take refuge under Bopp’s
canon” as he said himself pertained to a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at retaining the
favours of the irritable A. W. Schlegel. Indeed, the content of the letters varies depend-
ing on whether the addressee belonged to one school or the other. Yet this choice mostly
reveals the intellectual evolution of the young French intellectual,௘64 who increasingly
distanced himself from the purely grammatical approach as promoted by Bopp. He
drew noticeably closer to the “Bonn school” – “one of the glories of which” was, to him,
to have “applied itself to the knowledge of things and not only words.” Therefore, if
Rosen was so positively appraised by Burnouf although he had been trained in Bopp’s

58 Ibid., p. 249–256 (Burnouf to his wife, London, May 10, 1835).

59 Lefmann, vol. I, “Annex”, p. 137–138 (Bopp to J.-L. Burnouf, Paris, December 29, 1821).
60 L. Delisle, p. 346–347 (Burnouf to Bopp, Paris, March 25, 1843); J. Naudet, Notice historique
sur MM. Burnouf, père et ¿ls, Paris 1854, p. 32.
61 Naudet, p. 40.
62 L. Delisle, p. 182 (Burnouf to Lassen, Paris, October 13, 1834).
63 Ibid., p. 185–186 (Burnouf to Lassen, Paris, January 19, 1835).
64 Two passages deserve to be compared. In his letter dated February 15, 1825, J.-L. Burnouf wrote to
Bopp: “My son, he who has read your grammar from start to ¿nish, cannot cease to admire the deep
science and sagacity that you have displayed in this book. In my opinion, he ranks you ¿rst amongst
the Continent’s Indologists” (ibid., p. 463). A contrario, in a letter to A. W. Schlegel sent from Paris
on September 22, 1834, Eugène Burnouf wrote: “Yet who is the second European Orientalist [the
¿rst one being A. W. Schlegel] that would be at the same time a scholar, a poet and a writer, with a
publisher’s patience, warm imagination and re¿ned taste? Certainly not Mr. Bopp.” (Ibid., p. 462)

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The School of German Indology 117

school, it was for what had gradually differentiated him from the Berlin school.௘65 Rosen
and Burnouf had in common their solid training in comparative grammar, and the fact
that they both managed to free themselves from it, adopting a more general perspective
including the study of Indian literary production and ancient languages, rather than the
sole structure of these languages.
Burnouf had ¿rst viewed the Vedas as a means to shed light on Avestan literature.
However, he gradually envisaged them for themselves, especially after Rosen died
(1837), leaving a huge ¿eld of study undeveloped. Even though he himself did not
undertake any work on Vedism, Burnouf was aware that this was an important domain,
which European scholars had no knowledge of. Therefore, in the courses he gave at
the Collège de France starting in 1832, he granted Vedism a signi¿cant place, very
much basing himself on the works of his predecessors, Colebrooke and Rosen.௘66 It
just so happened that for a few years, Burnouf’s reputation as an Indologist, no doubt
further enriched by his knowledge of German philological methods, had already ex-
tended across the borders. German students made sure to come to Paris and attend his
lectures, thus pursuing the French-German scienti¿c dialogue that had formed up in
the early days of Indology. All those who were to become the greatest ¿gures of Vedic
studies in Europe rubbed shoulders or succeeded one another at his lectures. Besides
the Frenchman Adolphe Régnier, who was to publish an Etude sur l’idiome des Védas
et les origines de la langue sanskrite in 1855, in Paris, and the Belgian Felix Nève, the
author of an Essai sur le mythe des Ribhavas in 1847, also published in Paris, there
were many future eminent German Indologists amongst his students, notably Theodor
Goldstücker, Rudolf Roth,௘67 Max Müller and Albrecht Weber. The fact that all of them
were to achieve great works in the domain of Vedism was due to the encouragements
Burnouf bestowed on them. He insisted that Müller go to England in 1846, with the
purpose of publishing the complete ‫ۿ‬gveda; the same year, Burnouf wrote to Weber,
who would go to Paris and London to gather together the manuscripts of the White
Yajurveda, reiterating his conviction that “the importance of Vedic writings, not only
for themselves but for the history of the development of Indian mythology and phi-
losophy, [was] such that the study of these texts should come before all the others.”௘68
In enjoining his students to devote themselves to the study of the Vedas, Burnouf
was continuing and even strengthening the major trends of philology in Germany:
interest in the most ancient documents, as well as a method combining the most rigor-
ous aspects of comparative grammar with a critical and historical standpoint. As Louis

65 Ibid., p. 463. “It is fortunate that Mr. Rosen did not […] espouse Mr Bopp’s quarrels. It should
be said that Mr Rosen does not have, in his character, the pedantic virulence which has put some
people off reading the Jahrbücher für wissensch[aftliche] Kritik [The Hegelian journal in which
Bopp wrote].”
66 E. Burnouf, De la langue et de la littérature sanscrite. Discours d’ouverture prononcé au Collège
de France, Revue des Deux-Mondes 265, February 1, 1833, p. 264–278.
67 About this, see Fick/Selle, p. 194 (Roth to Ewald, Paris, December 26, 1843).
68 Fr. M. Müller (ed.), Rig-Veda Sanhita, the Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans, together with the
Commentary of Sayanacharya, vol. VI, London 1874, p. V.

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118 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Renou summed up: “Although he himself did not leave us any works on the Vedas,
Burnouf gave rise to decisive directions everywhere. His impetus, attested to by Mül-
ler, actually sparked off the truly scienti¿c movement that came about around 1850.”௘69
It was precisely during those years in the mid 19th century that a new generation of
Indologists born in the 1820s started to occupy a growing number of chairs in German
universities. They took over from the romantic generation whose representatives had
been born in the last quarter of the 18th century. Burnouf, born in the ¿rst decade of the
century, as was the case with Rosen and Lassen, appeared as an intermediary in more
ways than one: between France and Germany; between the “philology of words” and
that of “things”; between a form of Indology anxious to discover markers in a mostly-
unknown Indian universe, and growing specialisation with Vedism as crowning glory;
lastly, between the discipline’s romantic fathers and their successors, nurtured on the
philological and linguistic achievements of the ¿rst decades of the century.

The Spearhead of German Indology

Vedic Studies Take Wing

The post romantic generation born in the 1820s holds a central place in the history of
19th century Indology – all the more so since the scholars that stemmed from it, among
them Burnouf’s students, started their academic careers in the 1840s and remained in
post until the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. As they were the ¿rst ones to study the
Vedas, their scienti¿c production makes it possible to assess the development of Vedic
studies throughout the century. While the ¿eld was practically pristine when they took
over, a considerable amount of work had been accomplished by the end of the century.
In the early 1840s, various series or preparatory stages were still to be completed
before tackling the heart of the matter. Given the dif¿culty in obtaining primary sources,
one of the priorities was to encourage the circulation of texts, collecting manuscripts to
make critical editions. Initial efforts were undertaken abroad, starting in the 1830s: in
1833, in Bombay, the missionary John Stevenson undertook to publish the ‫ۿ‬gveda, but
was not able to go any further than thirty-nine hymns;௘70 in 1841, in Paris, Guillaume
Pauthier launched himself into the publication of the main Livres Sacrés de l’Orient
(Sacred Books of the Orient), yet his book only contained excerpts from the Vedas.
British and French attempts continued, with the translation of the Rig Veda ou Livre
des Hymnes by Alexandre Langlois, a former student of Chézy (Paris, 1848–1851).
The merit of this work was to make the complete text of the ‫ۿ‬gveda available, yet great
liberty was taken with the original texts.௘71 On the British side, Horace Hayman Wilson,
the ¿rst holder of the chair of Sanskrit in Oxford, undertook an in extenso translation

69 L. Renou, Les Maîtres de la philologie védique, Paris 1928, p. 2.

70 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 94.
71 R. Roth, Der Rigweda, Allgemeine Monatsschrift für Wissenschaft und Litteratur, August 1851,
p. 92.

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The School of German Indology 119

of the text in 1850, but he died in 1860 before he could achieve his work. It would take
another thirty years for his successors to carry it through, in 1883.௘72
Such initiatives represented a sizeable effort, yet they were sporadic and isolated
with regards to the bulk of works undertaken as of the 1840s by German Indologists,
especially those who had been in contact with Burnouf. The French Indologist Louis
Renou௘73 quali¿ed them as the “rough school of pioneers”, which reÀects their fervour
and energy. The complete edition of the ‫ۿ‬gveda achieved by Friedrich Max Müller can
be considered as a bravura piece. The son of the romantic poet Wilhelm Müller, Max
had bene¿ted from an education in the great German academic tradition, combining
philosophy, classical philology, Sanskrit and comparative grammar during his studies,
which he started in 1844 in Leipzig and pursued in Berlin as of 1844, when he attended
Bopp’s and Schelling’s courses. Encouraged by Burnouf to go to Great-Britain, Müller
arrived in London in 1846, with the purpose of publishing the complete text of the
‫ۿ‬gveda along with the comments by SƗya৆a.௘74 His project started to take shape in 1849
with the publication of the ¿rst volume of his Rig-Veda-Sanhita. Five more volumes
were to follow, until 1874.௘75
In the preface to the ¿rst volume, Müller insisted on the energy that had been
required to unearth all the manuscripts that he could not ¿nd in Germany.௘76 He also
pointed out the dif¿culty in ¿nding a publisher ready to take on very high publication
costs for books whose readership was limited. As had been the case with Weber’s
Yajurveda, the only solution to the Rig-Veda-Sanhita ¿nancial problem was that the
East India Company took care of the major part of the ¿nancing.௘77 In ¿nding the ¿nan-
cial means to publish this ¿rst volume, Müller was aware that he made it possible for
a larger number of scholars to take an interest in the Vedas. In order to carry through
his enterprise, while the books were in progress he sought out a large number of col-
laborators, most of them young German Indologists who had come to England, such
as Hermann Brunnhofer, Julius Eggeling and Theodor Aufrecht. He thus encouraged
the development of Vedic studies on several levels and, in return, the growing number
of works produced in the following decades made his own task easier. As early as the
second volume (in 1854), he noted:

72 Renou, Les Maîtres, p. 4–5. The opinions provided here on the different works of publishing and
translation of the Vedas are Renou’s.
73 Ibid., p. 2.
74 The writing in question is SƗya৆ƗcƗrya’s MƗdhavƯya-vedƗrtha-prakƗĞa. As far as the text of the
‫ۿ‬gveda is concerned, Müller not only provided the hymn (Saূhita) collection, but also the text
of the pada, which is one of the mnemonic forms of recitation of the Vedic text, breaking down
every word (which makes understanding easier). Adjoining the comment and pada considerably
increased the extent of this undertaking, which explains why it took so many years to be published.
75 Volumes II to VI were respectively published in 1854, 1856, 1862, 1872 and 1874, in London.
76 Fr. M. Müller, Rig-Veda-Sanhita, the Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans, Together With The Com-
mentary of Sayanacharya, vol. I, London 1849, p. V.
77 Ibid., p. VI. Chevalier Bunsen, a German diplomat in post in London, who had dreamt about pub-
lishing the ‫ۿ‬gveda in his youth, fully supported Müller’s request for fund.

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120 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

The only books on which I could turn to when I started this edition were the
¿rst book of the Rig-veda, by Rosen, and a few quality essays written by Nève
and Kuhn. Now we have several publications: the Nirukta௘78 by Roth, the SƗma-
veda by Benfey, the Yajur-veda by Weber, as well as important treatises on the
Grihya-snjtras by Stenzler, useful indications on the Vedas supplied by Messrs
Pertsch and Whitney, and ¿nally – and this is important – we also have the
¿rst excerpt of Vedic lexicography published by Roth. […] Generally speak-
ing, Sanskrit philology has taken an entirely new direction and during the last
six years, more attention has been paid to the Vedic domain than to all other
periods in Sanskrit literature.௘79

Over the course of the volumes, people even started to resent Müller for not going faster
in his publication work. Emulation was growing and Aufrecht even broke off his collab-
oration with him in order to undertake his own edition of the ‫ۿ‬gveda, which he carried
out in two years (1861–1863).௘80 Within a few decades, the labour of German Indolo-
gists resulted in the edition of the four great Vedas: Theodor Benfey’s SƗmaveda (1848),
A. Weber’s Yajurveda (1852–1859), and the ‫ۿ‬gveda by Theodor Aufrecht (1861–1863)
and by Müller (1849–1874). To these should be added the Atharvaveda edited in Berlin
in 1856 by Rudolf Roth, the holder of the Sanskrit chair in Tübingen, and his former
student, the American Sanskritist William Dwight Whitney, not to mention other Vedic
writings relating to these four main books. The Vedic language was increasingly better
known, thanks to the linguistic works of the self-taught Sanskritist Hermann Grass-
mann, who, in 1873, published a dictionary of the Vedic language initially compiled
for his own personal use.௘81 He also made his translation of the ‫ۿ‬gveda publicly avail-
able in 1876–1877.௘82 At the same period, the ‫ۿ‬gveda, the most ancient and most pres-
tigious of the four Vedas, was also translated by Alfred Ludwig. A professor of com-
parative grammar at Prague University, this Austro-Hungarian Indologist originating
from Vienna had studied Indology with Weber, who was then Privatdozent in Berlin.
To these important works should be added the great Petersburger Sanskrit-Wörter-
buch (Saint Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary) compiled under the aegis of the Saint
Petersburg Academy of Sciences between 1852 and 1875,௘83 by Rudolf Roth and his

78 An etymological dictionary of Sanskrit compiled by the Indian commentator YƗska (6th century
B. C.)
79 Fr. M. Müller, Rig-Veda-Sanhita, vol. II, p. LX.
80 Th. Aufrecht, Die Hymnen des Rigveda, Berlin 1863. Naturally, his initiative to publish the
‫ۿ‬gveda created tensions between Aufrecht and Müller, who prevented him from having access
to the London manuscripts for the new edition of his work.
81 H. Grassmann, Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda, Leipzig 1873.
82 H. Grassmann, Rig Veda übersetzt und mit kritischen und erläuternden Anmerkungen versehen,
Leipzig 1876–1877.
83 O. von Böhtlingk/R. Roth, Petersburger Sanskrit-Wörterbuch, Saint Petersburg, 1852–1875, 7 vol.
(I, 1852–1855; II, 1856–1858; III, 1859–1861; IV, 1862–1865; V, 1866–1868; VI, 1869–1871;
VII, 1872–1875).

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The School of German Indology 121

colleague Otto von Böhtlingk. The latter, a former student of Sanskrit and compara-
tive grammar in Berlin and Bonn and a member of this Academy, had been authorised
to set himself up in Germany. This dictionary includes the lexicons of classical San-
skrit and Vedic Sanskrit entrusted to Roth.௘84 Roth was also in charge of the technical
vocabulary of medicine and botany in classical Sanskrit, which he ful¿lled with great
competency in his quality as a Swabian very much aware of the realities of the rural
world, and proud to possess this advantage over his Berlin colleagues.௘85 In the same
way as Müller’s Rig-Veda-Sanhita, this dictionary mobilised numerous scholars in
addition to the of¿cial editors – every occurrence of such and such term found by all
competent Indologists in the course of their own work was made available to them.௘86
Completed in the mid 1870s, like the Rig-Veda-Sanhita, the publication of the Saint
Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary was then hailed by all European Indologists, who were
aware that an important stone had just been added to Vedic studies.
It was precisely in the mid 1840s that the Prussian government bought Sir Robert
Chambers’ collection of Oriental manuscripts, which included many Vedic writings.
The situation was improving, all the more since other libraries, not wanting to be out-
done, launched into a policy of manuscript acquisition.௘87 Nevertheless, in order for the
Chambers collection to be pro¿table to scholars, an Indologist had to catalogue it and
make it known to the whole community of Indological scholars. Seasoned in the matter
of Vedism through his studies on the Yajurveda, A. Weber took on this task. Looking
into the content of the manuscripts enabled him to acquired in-depth knowledge of
the Vedic world. In 1852, as he had just ¿nished off the catalogue and was about to
publish it, he put out in book form the lectures on the history of Indian literature that
he had given as a Privatdozent at Berlin University since 1848. In this book entitled
Akademische Vorlesungen über indische Literaturgeschichte (Lectures on the History
of Indian Literature), Vedic literature was perfectly integrated and treated in depth,
which shows that the author had acquired great competencies in this arduous ¿eld in
the space of a few years. Weber himself attributed his progress to his work at catalogu-
ing the Chambers collection.௘88

84 UBT, Roth, Rudolf v. Md 643–691, Bl. 4 (Roth to Mohl, Tübingen, January 8, 1854): “At times
I am stricken with fear at the dif¿culty of the task, mainly resting on my shoulders, of providing
a totally new basis to Indian lexicography, from writings that still haven’t been explained to me.”
85 R. Garbe, Roth, (Walter) Rudolf (von), in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 53, Leipzig 1907,
p. 556.
86 The complete list of collaborators is indicated in the preface to the ¿rst volume of the Sanskrit-
Wörterbuch (1855), p. VI.
87 Fr. Kielhorn, Indische Philologie, in: W. Lexis (ed.), Die deutschen Universitäten für die Univer-
sitätsausstellung in Chicago 1893, vol. II, Berlin 1893, p. 531.
88 A. Weber, Akademische Vorlesungen über indische Literaturgeschichte, Berlin 1876 (2nd edition),
p. IX. In 1891 and 1896, the German Indologist Theodor Aufrecht published a catalogue in two
volumes listing in detail all the Sanskrit manuscripts deposited in European libraries (Catalogus
Catalogorum. An Alphabetical Register of Sanskrit Works and Authors, Leipzig, Brockhaus).
German Indologists were much acquainted with the manuscript collections to be found in Europe,

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122 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

German Domination
Around the middle of the 19th century, not only were Vedic writings an integral part
of the canon of Indian studies, they were considered as their crowning achievement.
As their contours grew clearer, they modi¿ed the view Indologists had of the literary,
religious and philosophical history of India: henceforth it had a beginning, which
was still dif¿cult to date, yet which nevertheless made it possible to organise a chro-
nology, given that it had become obvious that the Vedas were written much earlier
than the rest of Indian literature, be it the Sanskrit epics or the Buddhist texts in Pali
In 1846, while Vedic studies were still in their infancy, Roth had given an initial
overview of Vedic literature in an opuscule entitled Zur Litteratur und Geschichte des
Weda (On the literature and history of the Veda), which was the fruit of his research
in the library of the East India House, with the help of Wilson.௘89 The three chapters
of this small book were essential in paving the way for approaching the ‫ۿ‬gveda text.
Roth described the various Vedic books and the way they were connected to one an-
other, then presented Vedic grammar treatises. From the excerpts of the ‫ۿ‬gveda that
he had managed to obtain, he tried to identify information on the political, social and
cultural history of the Vedic epoch. The general economy of this small monograph
was of great didactic ef¿ciency and made it a founding work in Vedic studies. In 1849,
Albrecht Weber decided to create a journal entitled Indische Studien (Indian Studies).
This was the second journal speci¿cally devoted to Indology, after A. W. Schlegel’s
short-lasting Indische Bibliothek. Its thematic ¿eld was even more limited, only tak-
ing into account Indian Antiquity in the strictest sense – which, to Weber, meant only
encompassing “the Veda and Veda۬ga periods”.௘90 The journal thus clearly showed its
ambition to give Indian, and especially Vedic studies, a framework measuring up to
the importance they were acquiring in Germany at the time. The permanence of this
publication which counted no less than eighteen issues until 1898, bears witness to
the growing con¿dence and autonomy of German Indology in regard to the rest of
Orientalist disciplines.
As early as the middle of the century, the “masters of Vedic philology” (to take up
the title of Louis Renou’s book, published in 1928), were predominantly German. As
Benfey noted: “the publication of the major works in Indian literature, the fundamen-
tal writings of the Vedas, is almost exclusively due to Germans”.௘91 It also constituted
a veritable rupture:

because they were often hired to compile the catalogues of Orientalist libraries; this enabled them
to avoid unemployment, which often affected them at the beginning of their careers in Germany.
They also took part in manuscript collecting organised in India by the British government.
89 R. Roth, Zur Litteratur und Geschichte des Weda. Drei Abhandlungen, Stuttgart 1846, p. V.
90 A. Weber, Vorwort, Indische Studien I, 1849–1850, p. III –IV. For a summation of Indological
journals, see Annex III, p. 323.
91 Benfey, Geschichte, p. 409.

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The School of German Indology 123

Despite its short existence, the history of Sanskrit studies in Germany can be
divided into two fairly clearly delimited periods. The separation occurred in
the 1840s and subsequent years, with the introduction of the Vedas, the writ-
ings which, for a large part, are the most ancient accounts of the Indo-Germanic
spirit. […] For the ¿rst time, this more precise knowledge acquired through the
Vedas made it possible to attain a more accurate view of the history of the San-
skrit language. Moreover, one could perceive the important issues and questions
that these writings permitted to raise – and, in all likelihood, to solve – with
regard to the original history of the Indo-Germanic lineage.௘92

In the number of scholars they mobilised, in the mass of works accomplished, in the
intellectual challenge they represented, Vedic studies truly appeared as the spearhead
of German Indology in the 19th century, alongside linguistic comparativism – or rather,
interlacing with it: Benfey’s words perfectly illustrate how at that time, to German In-
dologists the evocation of the Vedas inevitably brought the “Indo-Germanic” past into
view. They sum up the ingredients that made Vedic studies particularly emblematic of
the Germans’ scienti¿c interest in India: the equation between writings and the spirit
that had produced them, as well as the delicate alchemy of historical philology mixed
with linguistic comparativism. Rooted in comparativism, German Indologists aimed
to attain maximal erudition as regards India, yet not making this their ultimate goal.
They preferred to go further and further back, getting to a historical horizon that was
continually closer and closer to the origin.

The Archives of the Human Mind

Documenting the History of the Human Mind

As early as the 18th century, the interest that Orientalists took in studying India was
motivated by the will to retrace the evolution of the human mind. In his time, Anquetil
Duperron prophesied that the discovery of the Asian past would make it possible to
peruse “the archives of the human mind,”௘93 and Colebrooke asserted it in a speech he
gave in 1823. There was no doubt that Asia would deliver the key to the “history of the
human mind” as a whole. This quest focussed on the Vedas once they were accessible.
The Vedic society was conceived as the closest evidence of what the Indo-European
society must have been before it split into various ethnic and linguistic branches. Fur-
thermore, it also seemed likely that applying comparative and historical grammar to
the Vedic language would make it easier to reconstruct the original Indo-European
language and even the presumed Indo-European world itself. German Indologists were
deeply imbued with the notion of a link between “mind”, “text” and “language”. On
the one hand, the belief that the mind of a people could be read in its historical archives,
i. e. in its writings, had been inspired to them by the “philology of things”, which it-

92 Ibid., p. 405.
93 Quoted by Schwab, La Renaissance orientale, p. 134.

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124 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

self owed this view to the emergence of historical thinking. On the other hand, this
conviction was strengthened by the idea – this time, inherited from Humboldt – that
language was the organ of thought;௘94 therefore each language displayed a conception
of the world speci¿c to the people speaking it.
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1832, Eugène Burnouf dealt with
the historical status of India and the fecundity of Indian literature to explore the human
mind. He asserted that studying India was of utmost interest as a result of the “discovery
of the af¿nity between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Slavic and Celtic”, which launched “ a
huge career […] for ethnographic and historical speculations.” As Burnouf used it, the
term ‘speculation’ did not refer to hazardous questionings as opposed to positive sci-
ence, but to the new research perspectives that Sanskrit was bound to bring to the fore:
the classi¿cation of languages, the explanation of their similarities despite geographical
distance, as well as the existence of a mother language and the possibility to discover
its identity. One can recognise the questionings that had guided Fr. Schlegel’s book in
1808, yet here they were invested with new legitimacy owing to the progress achieved
by comparative grammar in the meantime. Indeed, Burnouf considered that “the obser-
vation of the actual relations” between languages, as had been carried out by German
scholars on the basis of Sanskrit, provided solid ground for solving them, even though
one should not expect to ¿nd any more than partial results when it came to history.௘95
Besides this ¿rst series of general questions, Burnouf brought to mind that Sanskrit
could also, and mainly, provide precious information on India itself to European schol-
ars. In this domain, the interest of studying Sanskrit was of a historical nature: it made
it possible to put the main works of Indian Antiquity in order.௘96 Admittedly, the absence
of historical chronicles in Indian literary works made it dif¿cult to establish a political
chronology. However, Burnouf estimated that neither the chronology of Indian history,
nor the dating of the beginnings of the ‘Brahmanical’ society was in the realms of the
impossible. Once again, his optimism had to do with the great trust he placed in “the
light of philology and critique”, which made it possible to go back in time and start
from Alexander’s invasion, the highest point in Indian history for which there were
written accounts. Another method consisted in assigning to Sanskrit its chronological
and genealogical place in relation to the languages that were akin to it: Zend (ancient
Iranian) on the one hand, and Pali and Prakrit, the Indian dialects derived from Sanskrit,
on the other.௘97 At the same time, Burnouf was aware of the huge task still to be accom-
plished in order to do justice to the programme he had just set up. When he praised
the philological critique work already achieved by his German predecessors – Bopp,
the Schlegel brothers, Humboldt and Lassen – he also paid tribute to the prudence that
had guided their works. This carefulness had led them to proceeding one step at a time,

94 On the notion of “organ”, see W. von Humboldt, Sur le caractère national des langues et autres
écrits sur le langage, French translation by D. Thouard, Paris 2000, p. 171–172.
95 Burnouf, p. 266 on.
96 Ibid., p. 270.
97 Ibid., p. 273–274.

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The School of German Indology 125

deciphering the various aspects of Sanskrit philology one by one and not attempting to
solve all the questions that aroused their curiosity at once. Nevertheless, despite this
declared caution, apparently he could not escape yielding to the demons of history, so
tempted he was to assimilate Indian studies to a quest for origins:
However, let us dare to say it: although this course is to be devoted to philol-
ogy, we shall not banish the study of facts and ideas […] It is India, with its
philosophy and myths, its literature and its laws, that we shall study through
its language. It is more than just India, gentlemen, it is a page of the origins
of the world, the primitive story of the human mind, that we shall attempt to
decipher together. […] We are deeply convinced that while a study of words
without one of ideas – were this possible – would be frivolous and useless, the
study of words considered as the visible signs of thought is solid and fecund.
There is no veritable philology without philosophy and history. The analysis of
language processes is also a science of observation; if it is not the science of
the human mind itself, at least [philology is] the science of the most surprising
faculty that has helped [the mind] to operate.௘98
In this passage, Burnouf revealed the extent of his Indological ambition. He did not
shrink from such an arduous task as shedding light on the darkness of origins, even
though, in contrast, his modesty as a philologist ordered him to remain aware that the
work he could personally achieve was minute, and to cautiously restrict his activity to
data that could be checked at the time when he was working. He paid tribute to a kind
of philology that would be able to reveal the ideas behind the words. This con¿rms
the inÀuence that the epistemological discussions taking place in Germany exerted on
his thinking. When he used the term “philosophy”, he was referring to the attempt at
using text analysis to bring meaning to light. The idea was that one should never let
oneself be caught up in linguistic dissection, but on the contrary always retain enough
objectivity to bring out the profound issues of the writing examined. The young Ori-
entalist and historian of religions Ernest Renan, who learnt Sanskrit with Burnouf in
1847, substantiated what his master had understood as the philosophical perspective
that was to be the driving force behind philology:
Listening to your lectures [Renan is addressing Burnouf] on the most beauti-
ful language and literature of the primitive worlds, I found the ful¿lment of
what, previously, I had only dreamt of: science turning into philosophy, and
the highest results stemming from the most scrupulous analysis of detail. This
is the living proof that I would like to provide to all those whom I could not
convince of my favourite thesis: the science of the human mind must be above
all the history of the human mind, and this history can only be acquired through
the patient, philological study of the works it has produced at different ages.௘99

98 Ibid., p. 278 (emphasised by myself).

99 E. Renan, L’Avenir de la science, Paris 1995, p. 79 (Renan’s text, written in 1848–1849, was only
¿rst published in 1890).

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126 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Empirical work cannot be self-suf¿cient, but must always shed light on a more gen-
eral questioning. From the concrete case of the various epochs of Sanskrit literature,
philosophy must make it possible to isolate a general pattern for the evolution of the
human mind. Although Burnouf was aware that the Vedas did not represent an absolute
origin for humanity, this was not enough to set him apart from the Romantic approach
to India. Indeed, Fr. Schlegel himself had perceived that when Indian history began, a
¿rst stage of human history had already gone past. On the other hand, both scholars did
not arrive at this result in the same fashion. Fr. Schlegel based his work on the acknowl-
edgement of a gap between the Original Revelation and the ¿rst Indian writings, while
Burnouf noted common points between the ‘Zend’ and Vedic languages, concluding
that the Vedas were preceded by an Indo-European source, common to ancient India
and Persia.௘100 Moreover, he did not orient his work towards the quest of a lost prime-
val moment, but towards the research of traces of the human mind, using diachrony.௘101
In de¿ning ancient India as a “page” in the primitive history of the human mind, he
insisted on the idea of a documented, empirically accessible period of the literary and
linguistic history. He no longer sought, as Fr. Schlegel had done, to regenerate the Oc-
cident from the source of the Orient. Rigorous philology thus became a guarantee to
re-appropriate a philosophical approach that would not be at odds with scienti¿c am-
bition. It was the project of retracing the history of the human mind, notably through
the Vedas, which made it possible to reconcile both these views.

Human Mind, “Indo-European” Mind

In the works of German Veda scholars it is dif¿cult to tell between what was due to
the thought of the French master and what was directly inherited from the German
philological context, which Burnouf was clearly immersed in. Nevertheless, the com-
mon points between his own goals and those displayed by German Indologists reveal
an unquestionable ¿liation. In his Rig-Veda-Sanhita, Müller stated the reasons to be
interested in the Vedas in the following fashion:

The Rig-Veda is the most ancient writing of the Aryan world. Each hymn, each
verse, each word that we manage to decipher will represent a gain. […] We
must deem ourselves lucky that an authentic image of these primitive periods
in the history of mankind such as the one that can henceforth be studied in the

100 For that matter, Burnouf rose against the view of certain Catholics who persisted in seeing traces
of the primitive revelation in the Vedas. See Fr. Laplanche, De la philologie à l’histoire de l’esprit
humain. L’Inde originaire d’Eugène Burnouf, in: Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi/John Scheid (ed.),
L’Orient dans l’histoire religieuse de l’Europe. L’invention des origines, Turnhout 2000, p. 139–151.
101 There would remain the matter of elucidating the intellectual tradition in which E. Burnouf placed
himself when he described writings as the archives of the human mind. I have not found any
trace of an explicit intellectual ¿liation in this regard. However, this conception does not seem
to stem from German historicism, given how Burnouf still considered writings as documenting
the “human mind” as a whole, therefore he did not insist on the correspondence between people
and language.

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The School of German Indology 127

Rig-Veda has managed to come down to us. These ancient hymns represent the
deepest stratum in the development of the human mind that can ever be attained
through contemporary literature.௘102

To him, as to Burnouf, the text and the mind that produced it could be equated. As the
incarnation of thought, text was to be approached with a view that was not only critical
but also hermeneutical. While, in the case of the Vedas, this enterprise of interpreta-
tion promised to be extremely arduous, Müller did not consider it as impossible, given
the link that existed between these texts and the world of the 19th century European
exegetes. On the one hand, the Vedic writings made up a unique case of absolutely
continuous transmission until the modern days, by mnemonic means ensuring total
faithfulness to the original text. On the other hand, their being written in an Indo-
European language made them common good not only for Indian culture but also for
Indo-European culture as a whole.
In this excerpt, as in others from Müller’s work, the term “Aryan” was no longer
used in its strict acceptation, i. e. referring to the Indian rami¿cation of the Indo-Iranian
linguistic branch, but designated the whole Indo-European family. Even though Müller
did not intend this terminological shortcut to embody a race theory on the Aryan origin
of European, and especially German peoples, this shift nevertheless created a two-fold
ambiguity: with regards to the equivalence between language and people – or even
language and race – and with regards to the place of Sanskrit in the Indo-European
linguistic family. In giving the name of the ¿rst Sanskrit-speakers to all Indo-European
peoples, Müller contributed to re-introducing the false representation that the various
Indo-European idioms derived from Sanskrit. This erroneous expression also exposes
the tension within his own work. Following Burnouf, he envisaged the Vedas as a key
to comprehending the way the “human mind” worked, as a testimony to the “primitive
periods in the history of mankind ” as a whole. However, the term “Aryan” understood
in the sense of “Indo-European” considerably reduced this view, which went from a
universalistic plane to a particularistic delimitation. In Burnouf’s inaugural speech, the
Indo-European dimension – which was not forgotten – continuously gave way to that
of human history. On the other hand, in Müller’s work this general perspective, which
nevertheless remained its vanishing point, lost importance faced with the recurrent
reminder of the Vedas’ Indo-European identity.௘103 In the preface to his English trans-
lation of the Critique of Pure reason, which he wrote in 1881 for the centenary of this
text, Müller once more repeated his conviction that a historical bridge connected the
‫ۿ‬gveda to the rest of “Aryan” literature, representing its infancy while Kant’s work
clearly incarnated its maturity.௘104

102 Müller, Rig-Veda-Sanhita, vol. IV, p. LXXX, (emphasised by myself).

103 Ibid., vol. I, p. V.
104 Fr. M. Müller, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: in Commemoration of the Centenary
of its First Publication, with an introduction by L. Noiré, London 1881, p. LXXVII.

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128 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Romantic Resurgences: Vedas and Origins

High Antiquity
The “¿rst level of the development of the mind in our lineage”, “the most ancient
documents in the whole lineage of Indo-German peoples”: this is how the Vedas were
described in most German books devoted to them.௘105 At the forefront of concerns,
“Indo-Germanism” took scholars back to the ¿eld of their own origins. It also impelled
scholars to isolate the Vedas from the rest of Indian literature, since only these very
ancient writings were considered as likely to provide obvious traces of the common
“Indo-Germanic” past. This conviction was reinforced by works in comparative gram-
mar showing that the Vedic language shared more commonalities with Avestic, the
language of ancient Persia, than with classical Sanskrit. The resurgence of questionings
inherited from Romanticism therefore led people to lose interest in later, and a fortiori
contemporary, Indian culture. The basis for this was what Jean Filliozat views as a
“disastrous tendency to consider this culture [Indian] as forever lost or debased and to
favour the restitution of its origins over its knowledge.”௘106 Of the historical approach
as promoted by Burnouf, German Indologists retained the importance that had to be
granted to the Vedas. However, rather than considering them – as Burnouf did – as the
ultimate link in a chronological chain reconstructed backwards, they envisaged them
as the isolated remains of some incommensurable Antiquity.
Thus, in the foreword of the ¿rst volume of the Saint Petersburg Dictionary, Roth
insisted on the split between the Vedic epoch and the classical age of ancient India,
notably the difference of spirit between the Vedas and their comments, the BrƗhma۬as,
written at a later stage. While these comments were “the fruit of theological specula-
tion”, the Vedas were “the products of the most ancient religious poetry, whose artistic
practice was no more linked to castes or families than daily offerings and prayers.”௘107
This dichotomous representation of chronology enabled him to safeguard the image of
the Vedas that he had forged in the early days of his career, i. e. as writings that were
still not individualised, in relation to the common “Indo-Germanic” melting-pot. In-
deed, in an 1851 account respectively devoted to Langlois’ and Wilson’s translations
of the ‫ۿ‬gveda, he described the ‫ۿ‬gveda hymns in the following fashion:

The invaluable worth of these chants consists in that they unfurl, before our eyes,
the fresh and lively picture of an epoch – an epoch to which no literature of any
other peoples akin to us goes back; an epoch when the national singularities
and particularities that we now consider as pertaining to the Indian character
had hardly started their sturdy growth; an epoch when this people could still be
easily identi¿able as a true brother of the Roman, the Greek and the German

105 H. Grassmann, Rigveda übersetzt. Erster Theil: die Familienbücher des Rigveda, Leipzig 1876,
p. V and VII.
106 J. Filliozat, La naissance et l’essor, p. 295.
107 Böhtlingk/Roth, Sanskrit-Wörterbuch I, p. V.

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The School of German Indology 129

[…] These images of dawn, the wind, the sun god, look like the most ancient
ones in Greece in almost every feature, and certain hymns to Indra could eas-
ily be pictured in the mouth of a German from Cesar’s time, addressing his
thundering Jupiter.௘108

Thus, Roth was interested in the writings that he thought even more closely docu-
mented the epoch of what they supposed was the common life of “Indo-Germans”. This
explains that he also devoted himself to Avestan literature, which presented striking
resemblances with the Vedic corpus, on the lexical and mythological planes – similari-
ties that had already most highly intrigued Burnouf. Roth, a former student of Burnouf,
was to pass on this two-fold specialisation to his own students, perpetuating the histori-
cal liaison between Persian and Indian studies, in a new fashion.
German Indologists had the impression that they were dealing with a primitive
corpus, all the more so given that at least until the 1860s, the chronological horizon of
the history of mankind did not go back further than four thousand years B. C. This way,
when Indologists established that the writing of the Vedas had started around the middle
of the second millennium B. C., this looked decidedly very close to the origins of hu-
manity. There were fervent debates on this issue. One of the reasons for these was that,
in reaction to the exaggerations of the early days of Indology, and the representation –
conveyed by the pandits themselves – of the Vedas as sacred texts going back to time
immemorial, a number of scholars, especially British ones, had applied themselves to
put the antiquity of Indian civilisation into perspective.௘109 German Indologists gradu-
ally agreed in assessing the beginning of the Vedic corpus genesis as around 1500 B. C.,
and they were aware that the great lexical and stylistic disparity between the Vedas, and
even within a given Veda, were indications that many centuries had gone past before
these texts found their ¿nal form. Yet their opinions greatly diverged as to the total
duration of these respective writings and the order in which they had taken place.௘110
In the second edition of his Akademische Vorlesungen über indische Literatur-
geschichte (1876), Weber tackled this much-debated issue. According to him, it was
rightful to consider Indian literature as the most ancient literature available in written
form, yet the arguments put forward to prove it were unacceptable: scholars had based
themselves on Indian tradition, astronomical data or chronologies established by the
Buddhists. To Weber, one should rather look for information on their historical context
within the writings themselves. He notably found, in Vedic texts, indications linked to
the “history of religions”:

108 Roth, Der Rigweda, p. 87.

109 Trautmann, p. 99–130.
110 For instance, Goldstücker maintained, against Müller, Weber and Roth, that the PrƗtiĞƗkhyas
were more recent than the PƗ৆ini grammar. Concerning the date of the ‫ۿ‬gveda, Müller, in his
“Lecture on the Vedas” held at the Philosophy Institute in Leeds in 1865, suggested that it was very
ancient writing achieved over a compacted amount of time, between 1500 and 1200 B. C. Along
the same lines, in: Die philosophischen und religiösen Anschauungen des Vedas in ihrer Ent-
wicklung, Prague 1875, A. Ludwig situated this writing between the 15th and 12th centuries B. C.

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130 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

From the hymns of the ৙ik, in which the vigorous spirit of the people ex-
pressed its relation to nature with fresh naivety (they venerated natural powers,
equated them with superior beings, and implored for their benevolent help in
their respective domains); from this cult of nature which acknowledged only
the special manifestations of nature everywhere, and conceived them only as
¿rst and foremost transcending man, we can follow the religious evolution of
the Indian people in its literature, through almost all the stages experienced by
the human mind during its religious evolution.௘111

This picture of Vedic society, which Weber thought he saw emerging from this empiri-
cal work on writings, singularly matched that proposed by Roth: energy, spontaneity,
folk nature and a religious feeling closely connected to nature as being the most cer-
tain to guarantee the archaic, and even primitive (since it was presented as the ¿rst
stage) nature of this social state. In conclusion, Weber deemed that he had established
the “very old age” of Indian literature. Nevertheless, concerned not to repeat his col-
leagues’ imprudence, he insisted on the impossibility of assigning an absolute date to
Vedic writings. In the absence of any chronological data in Indian literature, scholars
had to establish a relative order for Indian writings, according to “their character”, and
the “quotes” they contained. In this regard, the two great periods that appeared were
the “Vedic” period on the one hand and the “Sanskrit” period on the other. The issue
of dating was nothing more than establishing the antiquity of the Vedas, and their dis-
tinctiveness from later Indian literature.

The Archaic Nature of the Vedas

In his Vorlesungen, Albrecht Weber summed up the information provided by the
‫ۿ‬gveda hymns as to the context of their elaboration, and he presented the Vedic people
as being relatively sedentary rival tribes settled around the shores of the Indus River
and living on agriculture. He emphasised that each patriarch took on the role of priest
in his household and that people had recourse to speci¿c priests for collective ceremo-
nies organised by the tribe’s king – and he insisted on the fact that the caste system did
not exist yet. In that society, women lived freely and, although they were governed
by marriage, the relations between men and women were naturally sensuous, as was
indicated by people’s nakedness. The same traces of immediacy were to be found on
a religious plane, with the absence of notions of sin and grace: the relations between
men and gods were solely in the nature of exchanging gifts. All these characteristics
made Weber decide that Vedic Indians were “much more manly and noble”௘112 than their
descendants, made weaker and inactive by the Indian climate.
It was a former student of Roth and Weber, Heinrich Zimmer, extremely versed in
comparative grammar,௘113 who produced one of the most extensive syntheses on the

111 Weber, Vorlesungen, p. 5.

112 Ibid., p. 40–42.
113 Zimmer was to become a teacher of Celtic studies at Berlin University in 1901.

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The School of German Indology 131

Vedic world at that time. His master in Tübingen had assigned him this subject for this
Habilitation, which he published in Berlin in 1870, under the title Altindisches Leben.
Die Cultur der vedischen Arier nach der Saۨhitâ dargestellt von Heinrich Zimmer
(Life in Ancient India. The Civilisation of the Vedic Aryans, presented by Heinrich
Zimmer, based on the Saۨhitâ). The title stated his choice of the “philology of things”,
which consisted in drawing from Vedic books to pick out cultural facts. The story of
this book shows the strong interest which this domain of investigation gave rise to at
that time. Its publication was made possible thanks to ¿nancing by the Foundation for
Prized Books in the Domain of Sanskrit (Stiftung für Preisarbeiten auf dem Gebiete
des Sanskrit) created at Müller’s initiative,௘114 and it received an award at the Fourth
International Congress of Orientalists, held in Florence in 1878. Lastly, it earned Zim-
mer the honour of being put forward as a member of the Science Academy in Berlin,
with a salary of 5.000 marks per year, as opposed to the usual 900.௘115
Zimmer started from the observation that Tacite’s Germania provided surprisingly
precise information on the history of the Germanic people. It so happened that as far
as India was concerned, no foreign witness had portrayed such an exhaustive and syn-
thetic picture. Fortunately, Vedic writings were perfectly preserved, which let people
hope they could draw precious information from them. Consequently, one had to draw
up “a picture of this fresh and young [Vedic] people, full of trust in its gods – a picture
surpassing Tacite’s account of the Germanics in clarity and precision”.௘116 The outline
he drew up reÀects his ambition to be exhaustive. The ¿rst part described “the land and
its inhabitants”, while the second part was devoted to “aspects of the public life of the
Vedic people”, as well as its habitat, its political, legal, economic systems, its clothes,
its food etc. Lastly, the third part reviewed the various “aspects of private life”, family,
mores, arts, science, death and representations of the beyond. His thesis on the origin
of the “Aryans” of India௘117 was closely akin to what had become the doxa of Indolo-
gists, as it could already be found in Christian Lassen’s Indische Alterthumskunde often
quoted by Zimmer. This dominant thesis consisted in envisaging the “Aryans” as tribes
from North-West India originally related to Persians, that had gradually arrived and
settled in the sub-continent where they met indigenous people that were described in
Vedic writings as the enemies of the Arya: the Dasyu. In the same way this separation
with their Persian relatives showed that the “Aryans” of India had reached the second

114 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 304. In 1872, Müller had been invited to hold the post of Professor
of Sanskrit and comparative grammar at the newly-founded University of Strasbourg, created
shortly after Germany’s annexation of Alsace. In the end, he only remained there for one semester,
and he donated his salary to create this Foundation. Zimmer, p. IX, explains that he received the
prize in May 1877.
115 M. Schetelich, Bild, Abbild, Mythos – Die Arier in den Arbeiten deutscher Indologen, in: M. Ber-
gunder/R. P. Das (ed.), “Arier” und “Draviden”. Konstruktionen der Vergangenheit als Grundlage
für Selbst- und Fremdwahrnehmungen Südasiens, Halle 2002, p. 40–56.
116 Zimmer, p. VI–VII.
117 In opposition to the “Aryans” of Persia; as was the case with Weber, Zimmer did not use the term
“Aryan” to designate all the “Indo-Germanic” peoples.

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132 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

stage of their history, their way of life revealed an intermediate situation which did not
pertain to “true nomadism”. Indeed, Aryans had exchanged their tents for a permanent
habitat and they practiced agriculture, yet for all that they did not pertain to an urban
civilisation, given that at best they lived in villages, and not in cities.௘118 Zimmer thus
noted that the Vedic texts were written over several centuries and endeavoured to show
“Aryan life changes according to different epochs and places of settlement in India.”௘119
This did not keep him from emphasising fundamental traits, which comparative ety-
mology showed as inherited from the “original Indo-Germanic people” (the family
structure) and still shared amongst the other branches of this people (the state system
or religious representations).௘120
German Indologists managed to turn the historical link between Sanskrit studies
and comparative grammar to their advantage. Together, Vedism and linguistic compar-
ativism ensured the renown their works enjoyed abroad, to the point that students from
various countries henceforth came to be trained in Germany. In 1849, the American
William Dwight Whitney started to study in Yale with Edward Elbridge Salisbury,௘121
the ¿rst Sanskrit teacher in the USA. The following year he went to Germany to attend
Bopp’s and Weber’s courses in Berlin, and Roth’s in Tübingen. He was enthusiastic
about the training he had in Germany and he kept in touch with his former masters all
his life – at the birth of one of his daughters, he deplored that it was not a boy for he
would have called him “Rudolf Albert”.௘122 He strove to introduce their methods in the
USA, where he taught Sanskrit at Yale University, starting in 1854. In an article “On
the Main Results of the Later Vedic Researches in Germany”,௘123 in 1853, he presented
an admirative synthesis of the works achieved by German Sanskritists. As it detailed
the results that were supposed to be acquired rather than on-going debates, his article
emphasised the collective, homogenous nature of Indological activity in Germany. It
clearly brought out that the efforts of German Indologists converged towards eluci-
dating the mysteries of the Vedic epoch, “that portion of the history of our race which
[had] been transacted within the limits of India”.௘124” The impression it gave truly re-
Àects how German works were perceived abroad. The energy put into the study of the
Vedas in Germany increasingly gave the feeling that there existed a “German school”,
thus moving the representation of the opposition between the “Bonn school” and the
“Berlin school” to the background.

118 Zimmer, p. 147 sq.

119 Ibid., p. VII.
120 Ibid., p. 305, 159, 422.
121 E. E. Salisbury himself was a former student of Bopp and Silvestre de Sacy, and he had studied
Sanskrit for one year in Bonn. He occupied a chair in Sanskrit and Arabic which had been cre-
ated for him at Yale University in 1841. He was one of the co-founders of the American Oriental
Society; in 1854, he passed his Sanskrit chair on to Whitney, and henceforth only taught Arabic.
122 UBT Md 262c-34, Bl. 475 (Whitney to Roth, New Haven, December 23, 1886).
123 W. D. Whitney, On the Main Results of the Later Vedic Researches in Germany, Journal of the
American Oriental Society, vol. III, 1853, p. 291–328.
124 Ibid., p. 328.

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The School of German Indology 133

As was the case with Romanticism, the ambition to ¿nd the origins of mankind in
India was nurtured on the notion of a common “Indo-Germanic” cultural source, yet
since Romanticism the sense and shape given to the search for the origin had greatly
changed. Romanticism had conveyed a paradoxical de¿nition of origin: in the works
of Friedrich Schlegel, the primitive nature was largely identi¿ed through its complexity
and perfection, as can be seen from his appreciation of inÀected languages. Later, A. W.
Schlegel reasserted it: “A compact, scholarly grammatical structure is […] infallible
proof of the purity of a language” – “purity” being understood in the sense of ‘original’,
i. e. not having undergone any change inÀuenced by the mixing with other languages.௘125
From this conception of primitive as being, par excellence, complex, there stemmed
a view of history marked by decline and the loss of perfection. On the other hand, to
the Romantics this perfection was not only synonymous with an elaborate stage, but
also corresponded to a relation of immediacy with the world – which made the origin
a simple state, the childhood of humanity. This twofold representation of the primi-
tive left traces that went as far as the thought of the French scholar Eugène Burnouf.
He was convinced that “a truly characteristic trait of a people’s history was that the
clearly oldest productions of its genius [were] also those in which this people’s re¿ne-
ment of thought and inventions of mind were carried to their highest degree.” He thus
corroborated the notion of an original complexity, yet at the same time he af¿rmed
that the poetry of the Vedas was, “as was the case with all primitive poetry, simple and
elevated,” and that this “two-fold nature perhaps better [suited] the Vedas than [the
poetry of௘] any other people.”௘126
For all that, in the works of German Indologists of the post-Romantic generation,
the de¿nition of the primitive resolutely shifted towards an idea of simplicity, as in-
dicated by the notions of “freshness” and “vigour” running through their descriptions
of the Vedic epoch. Complexity, whether with regard to intellectual elaborations or
social organisation, was henceforth understood as an element in the process of gradual
emergence. Müller, for instance, did not deny that the ‫ۿ‬gveda contained elaborate
morals and wisdom, but he mainly described them as expressing the evolution of the
human mind: fundamentally, the ‫ۿ‬gveda was mostly characterised by its “childish”,
even “silly” aspect.௘127 From Romanticism, this generation of Indologists retained the
correspondence between India and the privileged place of origin, yet less the elaborate
character of this origin. In fact, in the continuation of the movement historising human
thought, which appeared in the 18th century and which the Romantic pursued, the In-
dologists of the generation born in the 1820s perceived the whole history of mankind
as an “evolution” or “development”:௘128 the primitive was henceforth reduced to its

125 A. W. Schlegel, De l’origine des Hindous, p. 492.

126 Burnouf, p. 268 (emphasised by myself).
127 Fr. M. Müller, India: what can it teach us?, London 1883, repr. New Delhi 2000, p. 88.
128 For some scholars such as Schleicher or Müller, this succession of stages was understood in
Darwinian terms. However this evolutionary thought was minority amongst German Indologists,
who drew their conception of history from many other sources.

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134 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

dimension of simplicity and immediacy; it was no longer perceived as an isolated mo-

ment followed by a fall,௘129 but rather as an initial, embryonic stage, containing the seeds
of a transformation towards more sophistication, indeed already witnessing the early
stages of this transformation. The Vedas were not at the source of the Indo-European
civilisation; they simply were chronologically the closest to it. Therefore, they retained
traces of it, and as a result showed that the origin was not an a-historical, immutable
state separated from the rest of human evolution, but on the contrary already pertained
to the movement of historical change, thought of in terms of successive stages. Hence
the ambiguities about Vedic times, systematically noted by Zimmer: an original world
in transition, still oscillating between a natural state and the beginnings of civilisation.
The Indologists of this new generation shared with the Romantics a certain nostal-
gia for the lost unity of the original world. Nonetheless to them it took on the form of
curiosity for the time of the supposed common origin of the various “Indo-Germanic”
peoples, and was no longer simply a quest for the lost immediacy to the world. In
the middle of the century, Indology was divided between the Romantic heritage that
combined fascination for origins and disdain for later Indian history, and the will to
understand the human mind in its development, which implied looking back to the time
before the origin and retracing the stages leading up to 19th century Europeans, who
seemed to represent the summit of this development. As writings close to the common
“Indo-Germanic” epoch, the Vedas seemed to provide the ideal starting point for this
historical investigation. This way, owing to the existence of links of kinship between
languages, the notion that a language is the expression of a speci¿c people’s way of
thinking could be understood at various levels. The Vedic texts could provide infor-
mation on the Indian mind and, more generally, on the origins of the Indo-European
mind, or even bring to light traits that were proper to the human mind as a whole. This
project held an hegemonic dimension, in that Indo-European was considered as the
parangon of the highest development of humanity. The Vedas not only appeared as an
ethnographic document on the most distant reachable past, but also as an anthropo-
logical tool௘130 in order to grasp the way the human mind works. In 1854, Burnouf’s
biographer, opposing “the road long taken [in Great Britain], of literal interpretation
and practical grammar”, and the “German school of comparative philology and gram-
mar applied to anthropology and history”௘131 perfectly summed up the new situation of
German Indology, which presented itself as a true source for sciences aspiring to the
knowledge of man.

129 Insisting on the break between the Vedic and later epochs in Indian history was therefore reliant
on Romanticism, since it isolated an original moment; on the other hand, the bridge that Müller
built between the “childhood” and “adulthood” of Indo-European humanity, as well as Zimmer’s
description of a Vedic society in transition, both included origins in the vast movement of history.
130 “Ethnographical”, i. e. serving as a basis for the description of a stage of civilisation; “anthropo-
logical” in the sense that these writings made it possible to lead an investigation on the nature of
Man and the way he was in history.
131 Naudet, p. 42.

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A Source for Science

Indeed, being the study of all Indian civilisations and

cultures, of Indian humanity, Indology is a source for all
human sciences, be they anthropology, ethnology, lin-
guistics, sociology, history, religion, philosophy or art.
Jean Filliozat, Deux cents ans d’indianisme, 1987௘1

Although the Vedas immediately attracted the curiosity of scholars, Vedic studies only
started in the 1840s, i. e. almost half a century behind the beginnings of the philological
work on Sanskrit undertaken by Europeans. In making these studies the keystone of
the Indologist edi¿ce, German Sanskritists remembered the lesson taught by Burnouf,
for whom the Vedas would provide the answer to questions concerning the various
stages governing the development of the human mind. However, they strayed from
the French master: unlike him, they did not go back in time but took the Vedas as the
starting point for their historical enquiry. While modern Indian history no longer pro-
vided access to its long-buried past, in contrast, it was thought that shedding light on
the darkness of its past would make it possible to solve the mystery of the evolution
of the human – and especially Indo-Germanic – mind.
This tendency to go straight to the most ancient sources showed that the Romantic
nostalgia for origins still had great resonance in Germany. However, this tendency
also had to do with the way philologists used linguistic comparativism as a tool. Texts
were viewed as true reservoirs of realia, and being written in a language which, in
itself, expressed the mind of its speakers, they supplied a wealth of information on the
cultural and intellectual state of the people that had produced them. If the mind of a
people showed itself in its language, then kinship between languages was enough to
conclude that there was also an intellectual and cultural kinship between the people
speaking these respective languages. This fully legitimised the imperative that San-
skrit texts be studied in order to provide information on the life of the Indo-European
mind. Moreover, this study of texts took on a clearly anthropological turn. What de¿-
nitely furthered this turn was that establishing a correspondence between language and
people immediately led to studying texts on a collective plane rather than acceding
to the notion of individual creativity. In 1876, writing a bibliographical note on Bopp,
the linguist August Leskien showed the central role that linguistic comparativism had
played in the elaboration of other branches of knowledge:

1 J. Filliozat, Deux cents ans d’indianisme, p. 85.

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136 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

At the same time as the notion of linguistic kinship and linguistic root, compara-
tive grammar has also provided the right notion about the genealogical kinship
of peoples. It has thus radically modi¿ed our conceptions of the original his-
tory of peoples, of their various links of kinship and most ancient migrations,
as well as of ancient religion, culture and poetry. On the basis of the compara-
tive study of languages, new disciplines have emerged, such as comparative
mythology, the comparative study of legends, and comparative cultural history.
Even though these have, indeed, other foundations, were it not for this particular
basis they would have been unimaginable.௘2

Leskien’s assessment con¿rms that comparativism had extended and become a meth-
odological principle. It also shows that applying it not only to language but to all the do-
mains of intellectual life opened various paths for exploration. In the case of the Vedas,
the sacred writings of an especially ancient religion, the perspectives that stemmed
from using comparativism mainly concerned the emergence of religion. There was
a risk that Vedic studies could once again take German Indologists onto dangerous
ground. The suspicion of speculation and mysticism that had hung over budding Indol-
ogy were strongly fuelled by the examination of issues concerning religion through
Indian writings. At a time when, by dint of prudence, this discipline seemed to have
won scienti¿c legitimacy, it was somewhat hazardous to endanger this status by going
back to religious themes. However – and this is not the least of its paradoxes – far from
undermining its scienti¿c status this turn rather enabled Indology to play a central role
in the advent of new human and historical sciences.

Indology and Religion

Variations around the Problematics of Religion

In the context of Prussian university reforms,௘3 which granted growing autonomy and
importance to philosophy faculties, establishing Sanskrit as an academic discipline
had clearly been done on the basis of distancing from religion in a two-fold fashion:
secularising a part of Orientalism on the one hand, and pushing back religious prob-
lems linked to India on the other. In the general picture he drew concerning the results
of Vedic studies in Germany, Whitney showed how the exploration of the Vedas had
changed the situation:

It lies in the nature of the case that the Vedic writings present upon no other
point in Indian antiquity so full and detailed information as upon the ancient
Indian religion. Nor could we, though having regard to the elucidation of In-
dian history alone, well wish it otherwise. Considering how closely, as already

2 Leskien, p. 149.
3 Following the losses and reconquests of the early 19th century, Prussian universities were Berlin,
Bonn, Breslau, Königsberg and Halle-Wittenberg.

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A Source for Science 137

remarked, the whole course of that history is intertwined with religion, con-
sidering too what vast inÀuence the later religious institutions and creations of
India have had upon so large a portion of the human race, and how dif¿cult
was the problem they offered to one who would understand them thoroughly
in their origin and history, nothing was more to be desired than just that picture
which the Vedas present of the original national creed out of which all the oth-
ers, in obedience to the laws imposed by the intellectual and moral growth of
the people, sprung.௘4

Religion was not envisaged from a theological viewpoint consisting in discussing

points of orthodoxy in the light of writings, but rather from a historical perspective,
aiming to organise studied texts within a chronology of religion events. The Vedic re-
ligion was not so much approached as the recovered source of the sacred but rather as
one of the historical forms of religion. Science was thus claiming its rights regarding
how to deal with religion. Furthermore, broached through the ¿lter of this rationali-
sation, the religious theme stood less chance of conÀicting with the secularisation of
teaching that Prussian universities had undergone.
It should be speci¿ed that, unlike revolutionary France, German society had not
been won over by atheism. On the contrary, starting in 1815 a de¿nite return to religios-
ity had come about, which further intensi¿ed in the 1840s when Frederick William IV,
the new King of Prussia, went to work at bringing together government and religious
authorities. In German states, at the time of the Vormärz the various religious groups
were inÀuenced by the religious revival movement known as Erweckungsbewegung.
Just when Vedic studies were taking off in Germany, this revival of the importance of
religion in German society was bound to have an impact on the centres of interest of
both students and teachers.௘5 However, the place of religion remained complex, because
the Young Hegelian movement (Junghegelianer) was asserting itself during that same
period; one of their most inÀuential books was Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (Life
of Jesus)௘6 by David Friedrich Strauss, in 1835. As early as the 1820s, the characteristic
idealism and rationalism of Hegelian philosophy had dealt a severe blow to theology
in that it inserted religion into the dialectical movement of historical reason. In the
following decades, studies undertaken by the Young Hegelians were instrumental in
further destabilising theological dogma, pushing historical critique of the Bible to its
paroxysm: until then, it had been reserved for the Old Testament, but Strauss no longer
dithered about subjecting even the New Testament to it. He hardened his approach even
more, voicing doubts as to the historical veracity of a whole part of the New Testament
and granting more credibility to what pertained to history and reason than to what was
related to faith, the latter being associated with “myths”.

4 Whitney, On the main results, p. 315.

5 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 70–71.
6 D. F. Strauss, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet, Tübingen 1835–1836, 2 vol.

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138 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Thus, in the 1840s the renewed interest for religion coexisted with the weakening
of the very foundations of theology. This resulted from a historical critique of the Bible
that was more and more remote from the project of early 19th century theologians, who
had simply wanted to apply philological methods to Biblical texts in order to know
their historical context and reconstruct the closest-to-the-original version possible. In
such a situation, interest for religion could no longer be structured without an effort
to rethink the essence of religion and make room to approaches meant to be more
scienti¿c than theological. The religious themes brieÀy seen in Vedic writings could
thus more easily ¿nd their place at university and even give rise to certain enthusiasm,
given the perspectives they opened as regards the quest to reconcile science and reli-
gion which was stirring Germany at that time.௘7

Sanskrit and the History of Religions: the Reasons for an Atypical Chair
However, in order for Sanskrit studies to become institutionalised, secularisation had
not been a prerequisite all over Germany. Even though the structure of Prussian uni-
versities had played an unquestionable role in the process, this discipline had also
managed to set itself up in universities as then untouched by the Prussian model,
which focused on the secularisation of teachings. At the time when the ¿rst classes and
soon after the ¿rst chair of Sanskrit were set up at Tübingen University, in the state
of Württemberg, this university was very remote from the current of neo-humanist
reforms, and the hold of theology was still very strong there. The examination of how
Indology was nevertheless established there brings to light another legitimacy-building
mode than the one that had been current in Prussia.௘8 The situation in Tübingen was due
to the fact that the city had been a great theology centre since the 16th century, with
its Protestant seminary (evangelisches Stift) founded in 1537 and the chair devoted to
philologia sacra, established by the humanist theologian Johannes Reuchlin at its fac-
ulty of philosophy.௘9 In 1579, this chair was divided in two new chairs, one of Greek and
one of Hebrew. The successive holders of the latter actually associated with Hebrew
the teaching of the other Oriental languages they knew – Arabic, Turkish, Chaldean or
Chinese. In 1775, it became a chair in “Oriental languages”.௘10
In the early 19th century, the situation remained unchanged: Oriental languages
were still taught at the faculty of philosophy and closely linked with the teaching of
Hebrew and philologia sacra. For instance, starting in 1816, the chair was occupied by
Gottlieb Friedrich Jäger, a professor who only knew Hebrew, while the other Oriental
languages were taught by replacements coming from the theology faculty. When the
time came to ¿nd successors to these supplies, the ministry was insistent about having
Sanskrit represented at university. Teachings that came in addition to Jäger’s Hebrew

7 This is also I. Sengupta’s opinion, From Salon to Discipline, p. 76.

8 The history of Indology in Tübingen has been the subject of in-depth studies: see Brückner/But-
zenberger et alii, and I. Sengupta, State, University and Indology.
9 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 40.
10 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 63.

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A Source for Science 139

classes were entrusted to Julius Mohl in 1826. A former theology and philosophy stu-
dent at the Protestant seminary, Mohl knew Sanskrit and Persian and had gone to Paris
and London to perfect his knowledge in Orientalism. However, instead of returning
to Germany to his post as an extraordinary professor in Oriental literature, Mohl ex-
tended his sojourn in Paris from year to year, and the university was forced to ¿nd him
a replacement. This function was allocated to Ludwig Heinrich Kapff, another former
student of the Protestant seminary, who had taught himself Persian and Sanskrit. Again,
the choice of this theologian showed that the Württemberg authorities were far from
seeking to secularise Orientalism.௘11 In his directive, the ministry even clearly enjoined
Kapff to emphasise, in his classes, the interest of Persian and Sanskrit literatures on
both the religious and philosophical planes.௘12 This is what Kapff actually endeavoured
to do until 1833, when he gave up his post to become a shepherd.
At that date, Mohl still had not returned to Germany, and when in the end he was
commanded to resign, in 1835, the question of his succession became crucial, as the
consequence of Württemberg’s henceforth tense religious climate. Indeed, there was
a ¿erce dispute between the representatives of philologia sacra inherited from the
16th century, the Pietists established in the region since the 1820s, and the members of
the “Young school of Tübingen” (jüngere Tübinger Schule), who were the descendents
of Hegelianism and stood out for their radical historical and rationalist critique of the
Bible. Their leader, Ferdinand Christian Baur, a professor of theology at Tübingen
Protestant seminary and a specialist of the gnosis, vowed bitter hostility to the Pietists
and pronounced himself in favour of a strict separation of religiosity and science.௘13
These dissensions greatly affected the issue of Mohl’s succession. The philosophy
faculty could not impose its favourite candidate, Friedrich Rückert, the holder of the
Orientalist chair in Erlangen, although he perfectly mastered Sanskrit, Persian and
Arabic. Indeed, the ministry, dominated by the Pietists, judged him too liberal on the
political plane and, above all, too critical of Protestant orthodoxy. Instead, the min-
istry suggested the appointment of two theologians, who admittedly did not master
Sanskrit but could commit themselves to learning it as quickly as possible.௘14 In doing
so, clearly they gave priority to theological competences of the candidates over lin-
guistic mastery. The faculty of philosophy, which was dominated by the supporters of
the jüngere Tübinger Schule, went on a new offensive and proposed Heinrich Ewald,
a professor of Oriental languages in Göttingen who had just lost his chair for having
protested against the abrogation of the liberal constitution of the Hanover state. Ewald,
who was markedly championed by Baur, could thus be appointed ordinary professor
of Oriental languages and literature at Tübingen in 1838. In spite of the considerable
weight of the theology faculty, this victory of the candidate of the philosophy faculty
can be explained by the fact that Ewald was highly competent in the domain of He-

11 Ibid., p. 33.
12 I. Sengupta, State, University and Indology, p. 283.
13 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 64.
14 Ibid., p. 31–32.

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140 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

brew and theology. Furthermore, as he advocated linking comparative grammar and

the “philology of things”, he was totally willing to exceed the purely linguistic plane
and to take an interest in the history of religion, and, more generally, the stages of
human evolution.௘15
These administrative disputes reveal the hold that the religious context had on the
life in Tübingen University. Ewald had bene¿ted from Baur’s support, yet he con-
sidered that the latter was mistaken about the scienti¿c and historical nature of his
research, and that his rooting in Hegelianism prevented him from leaving the frame-
work of speculative, Christian philosophy. For his part, Ewald remained faithful to
his religious feeling; nevertheless, he claimed to lead his work in total independence
from his faith and was opposed to religious teaching whose sole focal point would be
Christianity.௘16 His Orientalist research was to supplement the incomplete, an-historical
picture of religion that theologians provided. This divergence turned into an open con-
Àict when Ernst Meier applied for Jäger’s Hebrew language chair, in 1846. A Privat-
dozent in Semitic language and literature at Tübingen and a former student of Ewald,
Meier had become very close to Baur. Ewald submitted another candidate, who was
none other than Rudolf Roth, one of his former students at Tübingen.
Roth had just returned from his study sojourn in Paris and London; in 1846, as was
the case with Meier, he was a Privatdozent in Oriental languages at Tübingen Univer-
sity. In the end, Roth and Meier were both accepted as extraordinary professors in Ori-
ental languages in 1848, each within his own domain of specialty: Semitic languages
for Meier, “Indo-Germanic” ones for Roth.௘17 Even though none of them had obtained
a chair, this decision rati¿ed the acknowledgement of their respective domains of spe-
cialty. It also showed that taking into account what was “Indo-European” shattered
the “Orientalist” category, necessitating, at least, specialisation in sub-domains. The
same year, Ewald – who was an increasingly ¿erce opponent of the jüngere Tübinger
Schule – resigned from his chair in Oriental languages and literature and went back to
Göttingen, where the liberal constitution had been re-instituted.௘18 The battle to obtain
this Ordinariat once again opposed Meier and Roth. In 1856, after long negotiations,
the philosophy faculty ended up insisting that the chair be shared between both can-
didates – against the advice of the theology faculty, which was completely behind
Meier. Roth was neither a Pietist nor an established supporter of the Young school of
Tübingen. He seemed more neutral, and therefore a safer choice; he envisaged Indian
studies as a branch of theology coming to complete the existing ones, and wanted to
give theology a scienti¿c method. Furthermore, he was still in close contact with the
theology faculty where he had been trained. As early as 1845–1846, he had proposed
a course on “the history of Indian religion and literature”. When he became an ex-

15 About Ewald’s practical experience on the history of religions, see Mangold, p. 98–100; Brückner/
Butzenberger et alii, p. 65.
16 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 53–57.
17 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 67.
18 Stache-Rosen, p. 22.

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A Source for Science 141

traordinary professor, he regularly gave a course on the “general history of religions”.

When he was appointed inspector of the Protestant seminary in 1853, he made this
course compulsory for the seminary’s theologians, which brought him a large audi-
ence.௘19 In a way, the role played by the history of religions in promoting Indology at
Tübingen equated that of linguistic comparativism in other universities: it increased
the discipline’s attendance because it associated Indology to larger issues than the sole
language and culture of India.

Historical Critique to the Test of Vedic Writings

Two contradictory trends – radical Biblical critique on the one hand and a return to re-
ligiosity on the other – were crossing Germany, and paradoxically they somewhat less-
ened differences between universities. In Prussia, religious themes were regaining their
rights in Indology without raising suspicion as to the discipline’s scienti¿c integrity. In
such states as Württemberg, Indology appeared as the discipline that could renew and
improve theological studies. In all cases, the Vedas seemed to be a privileged ¿eld of
investigation.௘20 The key role played by the historical approach was being con¿rmed: in
Prussia, as in Württemberg, it was the ambition to deal with religion in the individuality
of its historical forms that legitimised Vedic studies. Indeed, historicising the approach
to religion made it possible to apply methods of critical analyses traditionally reserved
to the Christian Scriptures to such non Biblical corpuses as the Vedas.
However, Indologists could not ignore the differences between this corpus and the
one of the Bible. Admittedly, both were texts from an ancient, continuous tradition
and while the Bible was the Holy Book of most Europeans, the Vedas were related to
Europe by their status as the oldest sacred text ever written in an Indo-European lan-
guage. Still, beyond these commonalities, the Vedas presented undeniable otherness,
in that they bore witness to a form of religion which, in principle, diverged in many
ways from Christian monotheism. Therefore, exegesis required even more attention to
detail in order to make these writings understandable and to avoid misinterpretations.
As far as method was concerned, the strict application of the principles of historical
critique to the Vedas gave rise to true works of ethnography on the rituals of ancient
India. Weber wrote monographs about the most varied rites, such as marriage rituals,
ceremonies for the enthronement of the king, sacri¿ce of a horse or even human sac-
ri¿ce.௘21 From the various Vedic texts, he collected as much information as he could
about the procedure for performing a given sacri¿ce. He then synthesised it, recreat-
ing the circumstances and motivations, the stages of the sacri¿cial ritual, the distribu-

19 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 67.

20 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 79.
21 A. Weber, Über die Königsweihe, den Râjasûya, Abhandlungen der Königl. Preußischen Aka-
demie der Wissenschaften, Philos.-histor. Klasse, Berlin 1893/2, p. 1–158; Zur Kenntniss des
vedischen Opferrituals, Indische Studien XIII, 1873, p. 217–292; Ueber Menschenopfer bei den
Indern der vedischen Zeit, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft XVIII, 1864,
p. 262–287; Über ein indisches Würfelorakel, Monatsberichte der Königl. Akademie der Wissen-
schaften zu Berlin, February 3, 1859, p. 158–180.

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142 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

tion of tasks between the various priests, the nature of oblations and the content of
the hymns that accompanied the sacri¿ce. Such ethnographic practice was naturally
inherited from the science of Antiquity, but this heritage had come down through its
echo in a historical critique of the Bible. This therefore led Indologists to seek the
pure source of the Brahmanic religion: whenever they endeavoured to understand
rituals, it was in order to restore them to what they deemed to be their original, au-
thentic form, as opposed to the debased sense they thought they had acquired with the
passage of time.
A monograph which Rudolf Roth devoted to the funeral rites in ancient India per-
fectly illustrates this quest for pure and original meaning. In this text published in
1854௘22 he was striving to use a line by line analysis of a hymn in ‫ۿ‬gveda X, 18 in
order to reconstruct the successive stages of the ritual that this hymn was supposed to
accompany. He then compared the result he had obtained with the description of the
funeral rite to be found in later writings of Sanskrit literature: the Snjtras of AĞvalƗyana,
which refer to the same hymn. He speci¿ed that at the time when these Snjtras were
written, the dead were no longer buried, as they had been at the time of the ‫ۿ‬gveda,
but cremated. Consequently, even though the verse recited during funeral ceremonies
were, indeed, those of ‫ۿ‬gveda X, 18, they accompanied rituals for which they were
not intended; in the end, they were thus made to say something other than what they
initially expressed.௘23 According to Roth, the discrepancy between the initial meaning
of this hymn and the interpretation that the Snjtras provided was further accentuated
by misunderstandings on the meaning of words: for instance, Ɨngana, a term which in
the ‫ۿ‬gveda corresponded to the grease thrown into the ¿re as an oblation, later served
to designate the substance used by women as eye make-up. Hence the mistake of the
Snjtras, enjoining to anoint the eyes with fat when the ‫ۿ‬gveda prescribed that grease be
thrown into the sacri¿cial hearth. Such instances enabled Roth to conclude that “in no
way those who regulated the liturgy mastered all the Vedic texts” and that they were
“already a long way off not only from the ancient simplicity of these documents but
also from the language and the whole mental universe of these hymns.”௘24 Therefore,
Veda exegetes did not have to refer to the indications found in later ritual literature.
Such judgment is not surprising coming from Roth who was convinced that there was
a rupture between the Vedic time and the period that immediately followed, that of
the BrƗhma۬as and Snjtras. Such a position was nevertheless especially radical: even
Weber – with whom, incidentally, Roth was close on both professional and personal
planes – was interested in writings such as the BrƗhma۬as, the late commentaries of
the Vedas. However, Roth’s approach remains representative of German Indologist
philology, always ready to proclaim the absolute authority of the most ancient writings
over a more recent Indian reality.

22 R. Roth, Die Todtenbestattung im indischen Alterthum, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländi-

schen Gesellschaft VIII, 1854, p. 467–475.
23 Ibid., p. 471–472.
24 Ibid., p. 475.

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A Source for Science 143

At the time, this attitude was shared amongst the specialists of the sciences of
Antiquity, whose ethnographic investigations were limited to information supplied
by “texts”.௘25 It was justi¿ed in the case of classical philology, since neither the Greek
nor the Roman traditions were perpetuated until the modern times. On the other hand,
this bias was de¿nitely less obvious when it came to India, for there was a link – tenu-
ous as it may have been – between the Brahmanical religion as practiced in the 19th
century and the Vedic religion it stemmed from, through successive transformations.
Most German Indologists were exclusively “armchair philologists” – for a good part
of the century none of them travelled to India. Excluding contemporary practices, they
focussed their attention on ancient writings and resolutely turned their research towards
the origins, and emphasised the discrepancy between 19th century Indian religion and
its Vedic antecedents. In the last paragraph of his monograph on the funeral rites of An-
cient India, Roth demonstrated the “practical scope” of his comments, denouncing the
custom that consisted in burning widowed women to death on their husbands’ funeral
pyres. Indeed, on the basis of his exegetical work, he asserted that in ancient writings,
everything contributed to encouraging widows to return to a normal life. Given the
signi¿cant place this custom had in the representations of India in Europe, this example
was especially well chosen to demonstrate the gap between the purity of ancient writ-
ings and their corruption by priests unaware of their original sense.
The link between Indologist science and religion thus set up by Vedic studies was
therefore radically different from that previously established by Catholic Romantics
in search of the original revelation. In the domain of India, German Indologists – for
the most part Protestants – reproduced the reformer’s attitude, which consisted in
going back to the pure sources of religion. This they did by means of a text critique
that aimed to put practices to the test of their historical foundations. In doing so, they
managed to reconcile the secular legacy of classical philology and the heritage of
Orientalist theology.

Liberal Protestantism and the Ethic of Returning to Texts

European Science to the Rescue of Hinduism

Indologists were not secretive about their religious af¿liation. Weber was thus very
much involved in the life of his parish at St Jakobi, notably in the publication of its bul-
letin. This did not prevent him from showing great autonomy of thought as regards tra-
ditional theology. For instance, Indologists who knew him evoked his “liberal opinions

25 To late 18th-century philologists, such as Heyne, “texts” meant any document likely to be in-
terpreted. Therefore, archaeological objects were included. This was no longer the case with
Humboldt, who advocated to only study “texts” in the narrow sense of the word. Indologists
retained this limited de¿nition, at the most extending their activity to epigraphy. It should be said
that their special interest for Vedism certainly did not encourage an archaeological approach, since
Indians of the Vedic times had no temples. For their ceremonies, they only used sacri¿cial hearths
that left no mark after they had been used, hence the absence of archaeological traces from that

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144 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

towards the Church”௘26 or called him a “champion of liberal Protestantism against the
usurpations of the orthodox clergy.”௘27 In any case, this attachment to religion explains
his concern for the religious situation of contemporary India, which he deemed to be
especially debased. According to him, the Brahmanical society was characterised by
the “absolute domination [of priests] on the society’s other castes.” In return, the priests
were prisoners of countless duties – the sign of a religion brought down to executing
perpetual rites, fastidious to the point of absurdity, behind which the individual ended
up totally fading out. The culmination of this dark situation, the caste system, was
based on a ruthless hierarchy whose “harshness and inhumanity” were mainly exerted
against the lowest caste, that of the Ğnjdras.௘28 In that they took place at the beginning of
the Brahmanical society, the Vedas were altogether suited to helping one understand
how the castes took shape in history. Weber detected indications in them that made it
possible to assert that as they entered India, Indian Aryans (in opposition to the Aryans
of Persia),௘29 who were men of white race, met indigenous people “of black or brown
skin, who were at the lowest cultural level”. Repeating the interpretative pattern that
was growingly more widespread at that time, Weber deemed that in order to avoid mix-
ing with that race which awakened their “ethical” but also “physical disgust”, they set
up the caste system. In the midst of this system, the domination of the priests could be
explained by the insecurity felt by the Aryans because of their uprooting – a feeling
further increased by the lethargy caused by the sub-continental climate. People were
putting more and more trust into the protection of the gods and the priests, who took
advantage of this to impose their power.௘30 History has shown the successive failures
of Buddhism and Islam in countering the Brahmans’ abuses. Therefore, when it came
to religion, regenerating India had to go through European science:

There is at present an extensive moral and religious decline in India, which is

barely starting to give way to a new life, thanks to the electrical force of Euro-
pean civilisation. The recent European works aiming to ¿nd again and disclose
the ancient Vedic hymns and writings, in that they provide a picture of Indian
life which is so different from the present one, will de¿nitely be instrumental

26 R. Pischel, Gedächtnisrede auf Albrecht Weber, Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Aka-
demie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1903, p. 8. The journal in question was called Protestantische
27 M. Winternitz, Albrecht Weber, Biographisches Jahrbuch und Deutscher Nekrolog, vol. 6, 1904,
p. 355. In a letter addressed to Weber, the French Indologist Auguste Barth, a Protestant of Alsa-
cian origin, stressed Weber’s af¿liation to liberal Protestantism: “However, I wonder – not without
some fear – whether you are not going to follow the example of other illustrious scholars who
have turned towards literature or politics, and walk out on us to devote yourself to theology. […]
Liberalism is a good thing […]. Yet I must admit that the liberals have often spoiled it for me.”
(StaBi 2b 1877 [30] A. Barth: Barth to Weber, Paris, May 1, 1881)
28 A. Weber, BrƗhma৆ismus (aus Bluntschli’s Staatswörterbuch 1857, p. 212–215), in: Indische
Streifen, vol. I, Berlin 1868, p. 1–8.
29 In Weber, the term “Aryans” refers to the speakers of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European.
30 Weber, BrƗhma৆ismus, p. 3–5.

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A Source for Science 145

in the awakening of this new life. […] In the minds of the thinking part of the
Indian population, and even the Brahmans, it is necessary – and such will be
the case – to provoke a revolution similar to the one which, in its time, came
into being in our country thanks to the translation of the Bible by Martin Luther.
European science will thus ¿ttingly free itself from the extraordinary services
provided by Brahmanism, through its literature and language. Indeed, this liter-
ature has led us through all the phases undergone and ful¿lled by the religious
aspiration of Indians and, given the remarkable universality of this aspiration,
[…] it has given us a key to comprehend some of our own institutions and cus-
toms whose origins were obscure. Furthermore, the language of the Indians,
it is well-known, has made us the beautiful gift of an original Indo-Germanic
people, thus shedding light on immemorial times about which one can in no
way hope to ¿nd historical documents.௘31

The culture of India supplied data that sustained European science while the works
achieved in Europe were an excellent turn for Indians, helping them to recover the
source of their religion and thus regenerating themselves. On the part of such a “lib-
eral” protestant as Weber, this explicit comparison with the work of the Reform took
on a special emphasis: far from being a mere allegiance to theology, it underlined the
absolute necessity to have recourse to the philological approach, characterised by its
dimension of historical critique.
While his quality as a “liberal” Protestant makes it possible to understand why
Weber sought to give back to India the authentic foundations of its religion, this ob-
jective is more unexpected on the part of Roth. Indeed, in Tübingen Indology had
immediately developed in close connection with the missions settled in Southwest
Germany.௘32 Many students who attended Indological courses were theologians who
then left for India, notably at the service of the Pietist mission of Basle (Basler Mis-
sion). When they returned they contributed to enrich the university library by donating
manuscripts they had brought back from India. This was something that Roth strongly
encouraged in his capacity as the library’s director. In such conditions, it is surprising
that he endeavoured to promote the religion of Ancient India and regenerate contem-
porary Hindu religious practice, rather than simply support Christian proselytism. The
answer to this paradox is to be found in an article he devoted to the “Morality of the
Veda”௘33 in 1853, in response to the criticism expressed by the Reverend J. M. Mitchell,
who was posted in Bombay, against Zur Litteratur und Geschichte des Weda, Roth’s
ground-breaking work, published in 1846. The Reverend had criticised Roth for having
dealt with the ‫ۿ‬gveda from a purely literary standpoint, without placing himself in a
moral perspective. He said this presented too positive an image, concerning a text that

31 Ibid., p. 7–8 (my italics).

32 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 130–134.
33 R. Roth, On the morality of the Veda, translated by William D. Whitney, Journal of the American
Oriental Society III, 1853, p. 331–347.

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146 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

would have deserved to be condemned on many points. For his part, Roth thought it
was inconceivable to accuse the historical viewpoint of being biased and disregarding
moral issues. Historical science was claiming its right to independence, and could not
accept the least objection from the defenders of the religious standpoint. In any case,
possible divergences between the historical and theological narrations disappeared as
soon as one made the effort of understanding the true meaning of the holy writings.
Lastly, even though historical standpoints come and contradict its dogma, religion is
strong enough to endure.
Roth also underlined that the issue did not lie on a formal position (the divinities
of a speci¿c religion), but was rather to be seen from the stance of the nature of the
relationship between men and the divine. According to him, most polytheistic religions
could easily be boiled down to monotheistic conceptions. Vedism is no exception to
the rule. Without explicitly saying so, Roth points out moral aspects of Vedism that
are common to Christianity: the monotheistic feeling as well as punishment for one’s
sins, the immortality of the soul as the expression of the divine grace granted to man,
and the belief in the hereafter:௘34
No one will hesitate to allow to these conceptions a positive moral value, and
to esteem a literature in which such ideas are expressed. But the Indian nation
has not abode by them. It has, indeed, carefully treasured up, and at all times
regarded as sacred, the productions of its earliest period; but it has attached
the main importance to a worthless supplement, and lost from sight and from
knowledge the truly valuable portion. […] Those, then, who are called to labor
in the wide ¿eld of Indian missions may con¿dently hold up before the people
its own antiquity as a model: not in order that it progress no farther than that;
but that it may see how its ancestors, in their simplicity, were nearer the purity
of truth than their descendants, in their self-satis¿ed arrogance; and how the
former cherished none of those follies and errors in which they themselves are
apparently hoping to ¿nd salvation for now and hereafter.௘35
The work of the Indologist revisiting sacred Vedic writings in order to give them to
contemporary Indians and that of the missionary are therefore not incompatible but
truly converge: the former provided the latter an additional tool to bring to fruition his
mission of redemption.

34 An additional consequence of the parallel between Vedism and Christianity made by Roth, the
Jewish religion was losing the privilege of monotheistic thought. It is important to stress this
point, all the more so since the will to Àush monotheism out of Indian polytheism was to be a
strong tendency of Indology, even though it was mostly Protestants that engaged in Indology, thus
breaking from their own exegetical tradition, normally turned towards the Old Testament.
35 Roth, On the morality, p. 346.

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A Source for Science 147

In Search of a Common Religious Fund

Beyond their differences, Weber and Roth agreed in thinking that contemporary India
had become foreign to its sacred writings.௘36 This premise is far from being insigni¿cant.
As is clearly shown in Weber’s argumentation line, insofar as the religious decline of
the Aryans of India was attributed to such exterior factors as climate or the meeting
with natives, it became understandable, even on the part of such eminent representa-
tives of the Indo-European family. At the same time, since the Vedic religion no longer
had anything to do with the excesses of Brahmanism, Indologists could, without fear,
seek the remains of the supposed religious kernel common to Indo-Europeans. Thus,
the search for origins, which tended more and more to turn into a quest for the origins
of religion, found a two-fold legitimacy: in the hope of regeneration for the Indian
people, and in the keys it was likely to provide to other Indo-European peoples when
it came to understanding their own history. As Roth expressed it in 1852:
The most ancient Antiquity had neither the secrets nor the dissimulation we
usually attribute to it; its faith was childish and con¿dent until the wisdom of
priests took control of it and draped the sublime in the frightening clothes of
secret. […] Even more praised be the favourable fate which, among one of our
fellow peoples, has left the path to the origins that we are seeking fully open.
Admittedly, the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans and the Slavs have left sub-
stantial monuments of their religious life, yet the Aryan people, in the Orient,
is the only one to have retained for us such a profusion of precious testimony,
through which we can hope to approach the characteristics of the faith that all
these peoples once shared as they did the forms of language. From this stand-
point, as regards the history of religion, the subject of our investigation [the
superior gods of the Aryan people] takes on an importance that greatly extends
beyond the Orient.௘37
Cleared of the suspicion of being corrupted as of its origins, the Vedic religion earned
the right to be no longer relegated to the distant Oriental sphere. Its newly-found
reputation made it worthy evidence of the common religious past of Indo-European
peoples. If indeed, in the early stages of their history Indo-Europeans shared a com-
mon language and religion, then traces of this original religion must have remained in
the language. Linguistic comparativism was therefore an excellent guide in order to
identify, amongst the various religions of India, Persia and Europe, deities and concep-
tions inherited from the origins. The theme of the article in which Roth thus expressed
himself was “The superior gods of the Aryan peoples”, i. e. the Indians and Persians
at the time when these two peoples were still only one. Its aim was to establish which
religious conceptions of these two peoples stemmed from a common fund. For instance,

36 R. Roth, Zur Geschichte der Religionen. I. Die Brahma-Religion, Theologische Jahrbücher 5,

1846, p. 346–363.
37 R. Roth, Die höchsten Götter der arischen Völker, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen
Gesellschaft VI, 1852, p. 67–68.

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148 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

he examined the morphological and semantic concordances between the seven Ɩdityas
(the luminous deities of the Veda) and the seven superior spirits (“amschapands”)
mentioned in the Avesta. Since no other branch of the Indo-European family could be
traced back to such an ancient period of its religious life,௘38 the comparative analysis
of the gods of Indian and Iranian Antiquity was of fundamental importance in order to
carry through the objective of re-appropriating the sources of religion.௘39

The Services of Etymology௘40

In this race for the origins – which German Indologists meant in the sense of chrono-
logical precedence but also, and mainly, as the stage when national differences did
not yet exist – the problem was to know where to stop. The fantasy of reconstructing
the past and the primeval unity of Indo-Europeans was expressed in various degrees.
As the oldest documents of the Indo-European family, the Vedas could be understood
as the ultimate limit of the historical investigation. This was particularly the position
defended by Eugène Burnouf, who brought to mind that while those who were into
historical critique “had the right to investigate languages, whenever history no lon-
ger provided answers; they had to give up the hope of ¿nding something prior to the
language spoken by a given people”.௘41 Yet because of the growing trust they placed
in the powers of comparative grammar, German Indologists did not settle for what
the Vedas reÀected. They used rather the cultural and linguistic data of these writings
as a springboard in order to identify the characteristics of the period when those who
were to become the “Persian” people and the “Indian” people still lived together; even
to reconstruct and directly contemplate the previous stage, during which the differ-
ent branches of the Indo-European family were supposed to have lived in the same
homeland. In the inaugural speech he pronounced for his admission at Berlin Sci-
ence Academy, eager to recapitulate the ¿eld covered by “Indian philology” (Indische
Philologie), which he also called “the study of Indo-Aryan Antiquity” (Studium des
indo-arischen Alterthums), A. Weber thus highlighted the diverse historical strata that
Indologists were dealing with:

At the forefront [of the tasks of Indian philology] are research works that go
back even beyond the existence of the Aryan lineage as such. Since the exis-
tence of an original Indo-Germanic people has been an established fact – thanks
to Bopp’s brilliant inventions – people have tried to put the fund of lexical

38 Ibid., p. 67.
39 Roth, Zur Geschichte der Religionen, p. 347: “This Vedic pantheon will achieve the same thing,
concerning research on a given stage in the historical development of religion, as was achieved
by Sanskrit for research of languages.”
40 See Fr. Müller, as quoted in Schwab, La Renaissance orientale, p. 140: “If I were asked what I
consider as the 19th century discovery that was the most important for the history of humanity,
my answer would be this short line: Sanskrit Dyaus Pitar = Greek Zeus Pater = Latin Juppitter =
Old Norse Tyr.”
41 Burnouf, p. 276.

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A Source for Science 149

symbols common to the two sister lineages to use in order to also retrace their
original history. […]
Second: the close relation that exists between the Vedas’ conceptions and
word groups and those of the Avesta enables us to discern the contours of an
Aryan period during which the future Indians and Persians still formed a com-
mon people.
It is only at the third level that we arrive at India itself. If the Indo-Aryan
people occupies such a unique and primordial place in relation to all the other
peoples of the earth, it is because from the time when it settled in the Indian
Marchlands until now, its productions of the mind speci¿c to each period have
retained most of their character intact.௘42

While Eugène Burnouf refused to go back further than the periods for which there
existed attested languages, German Indologists truly gave substance to the mother
language, its supposed speakers and their universe. This obsession with the original
common fund led them to divide history according to the degree of individualisation
of the various branches – the “Indo-German” period being prior to that of the “Aryans”
and then simply the “Indians”.

Adalbert Kuhn and the Comparative Study of Indo-European Myths

The approach that consisted in reconstructing a common Indo-European past had al-
ready been promoted by Schleicher in 1846, in an article on “The Worth of Compar-
ing Languages”, in which he said that while it was prior to the “historical” epoch, the
“mythological epoch” (i. e. the epoch when attested myths were still to be found) was
not to be identi¿ed with the origins. He added that it was possible to go back further
than this mythological period thanks to the linguistic reconstructions that etymology
made possible.௘43 In the domain of myths proper, this meant that one could ¿nd again
a mythological substratum preceding that of attested myths. This programme, which
Schleicher had only outlined, was carried out by Adalbert Kuhn, a former student of
Bopp in Berlin, close to A. Weber.௘44 More versed in linguistic comparativism than his
friend, starting in 1852 he published a Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung
auf dem Gebiete des Deutschen, Griechischen und Lateinischen (Journal of the Com-
parative Science of Language in the Field of German, Greek and Latin), which he
restructured in 1875, together with August Schleicher.௘45 Since Grimm had published

42 A. Weber, Antrittsrede, Monatsberichte der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

zu Berlin, p. 388–391.
43 Schleicher, Ueber den Werth, p. 39.
44 Between 1848 and 1850, they maintained a “Sanskrit circle” (Sanskritkränzchen), in which Theo-
dor Goldstücker also took part (Windisch, Geschichte, p. 266).
45 The Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung had stopped after eight issues. In 1875, the new
journal, co-edited by Kuhn and Schleicher, was entitled Beiträge zur vergleichenden Sprachfor-
schung auf dem Gebiete der arischen, celtischen und slawischen Sprachen. His son Ernst Kuhn,
a professor of Indology in Munich as of 1877, later took over its editorship.

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150 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

extended collections of German legends in the 1830s, Kuhn showed strong interest in
mythology (he published three volumes of German legends which he had collected
himself௘46). Moreover, his training in Sanskrit and comparative grammar led him to
extend the ¿eld of study in this area, so as to envisage it on the scale of the various
Indo-European cultures.
As early as 1849, in the ¿rst issue of Weber’s journal, Indische Studien, he pub-
lished an article that was meant to be a general overview of “The Most Ancient History
of the Indo-Germanic Peoples”௘47 – which demonstrates the great trust he put in the
reconstruction power of comparative grammar. To him, amongst the respective myths
of the various “Indo-Germanic” peoples, none provided any information on the origin
of the people it was related to. Furthermore, since none of the peoples in question had
any “historical evidence” on the origin of the neighbouring people, only language made
it possible to go back further than the “historical arrival of each of these peoples”, i. e.
to reach their common origins.௘48 The method consisted in classifying the series of
terms whose kinship had been demonstrated by philologists in broad themes. Kuhn
thus made several lists of words stemming from the various Indo-European languages
in such domains as family, law, war, farming, breeding etc. In the different languages
being compared, whenever terms stemming from the same etymology expressed the
same reality, this reality was considered as proof of its dating back to before the sepa-
ration of the “Indo-Germans” into several branches.௘49 He was thus able to assess each
broad theme and to show, for instance, that “Indo-Germans” could already transform
cereals for food purposes, or that they had rules of hospitality – elements that showed
that they were already at least partly sedentary. While this article is devoted to the ma-
terial and social life of “Indo-Germans”, interest in mythology nevertheless appears
in the programme set forth as a conclusion:
The material presenting itself for comparison is still sizeable and it is mostly all
the religious sphere that promises a rich harvest. At the same time, it provides
the necessary complement to the picture that we have just outlined, adding to
it the spiritual element. If in these pages we have been able to shed light on
several points thanks to the language of the Vedas, it will be the case to a much
larger extent when we examine the myths and religion of these writings, match-
ing them up with those of other lineages.௘50

46 A. Kuhn, Märkische Sagen und Märchen, Berlin 1853; Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Ge-
bräuche, Leipzig 1858; Sagen, Gebräuche und Märchen aus Westfalen, Leipzig 1859, 2 vol.
47 A. Kuhn, Zur ältesten Geschichte der indogermanischen Völker, Indische Studien I, Berlin 1849,
p. 321–363.
48 Ibid., p. 321. Kuhn acknowledged that this had already been the programme of the Parallèle des
langues de l’Europe et de l’Inde by Frédéric Gustave Eichhoff (Paris 1836), yet he said that its
author did not master the rules of comparative grammar.
49 This method was to be taken up again and developed by other authors, notably Adolphe Pictet,
who was to call it “linguistic paleontology”: A. Pictet, Les Origines indo-européennes ou les Aryas
primitifs. Essai de paléontologie linguistique, Paris 1859–1863, 2 vol.
50 Kuhn, Zur ältesten Geschichte, p. 363 (italics mine)

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The study of religion made up the crowning achievement of the comparativist enterprise.
This was due, for a large part, to the privileged link that religion and mythology were sup-
posed to have with the “spirit” of a people. The de¿nition of myth had greatly extended,
particularly as a result of Grimm’s works. For a long time, “myths” had been understood
as legendary stories about gods, heroes and very ancient events, created in Antiquity
and metaphorically expressing a view of the world. With the discovery of the European
legend tradition, the de¿nition of myth had ¿rst extended to folk tales. Then, inÀuenced
by Romantic mythologists – Creuzer ranking ¿rst among them – the sacred writings of
Ancient Orient, especially India, were also included in the sphere of mythology. Thanks
to the Indologist works on the Vedas, the sacred literature of India gained an even larger
place in the study of mythology. Henceforth, it was a question of comparing myths, as
well as their motives – some of which seemed universal – from a formal viewpoint.௘51
Adalbert Kuhn was representative of this expansion. He was interested in the myths
of Europe as well as those of India, both as legends and as narratives linked to the
pantheon of ancient religions. His goal was to go beyond the heterogeneity of this cor-
pus – whose only coherence stemmed from the fact that it presented myths expressed
in Indo-European languages – so as to highlight a common mythical fund. All along
his career, he devoted numerous articles to this question. For instance, he correlated the
Vedic GandhƗrvas to the Centaurs, the Vedic goddess Uৢas and the mythological ¿gure
Brünhild, the ৙hbus of the Vedas and the Greek Orpheus or even Germanic elves.௘52
His most famous work, an 1859 monograph, was entitled Die Herabkunft des Feuers
und des Göttertranks (The Descent to Earth of Fire and the Heavenly Nectar).௘53 Like
Roth, he was convinced that the etymology of gods’ names shed fundamental light
on the function attributed to them, therefore on the religious conceptions they were
dependent on.௘54 His study went further than merely comparing the myths of the vari-
ous “Indo-Germanic” peoples which related the way men managed to acquire ¿re and
the nectar of the gods; it was an excuse to emphasise the myths and gods that were
common to “Indo-Germanic” peoples. He thus compared the myth of MƗtariĞvan – a
Vedic god or half god said to have stolen ¿re (the god Agni) from the gods to give it
to the Bh৚gu (one of the most ancient families of Vedic priests) – with the Greek myth
of Prometheus. The idea was to show the similarity of their contents and to prove that
the names Prometheus and MƗtariĞvan had the same meaning, therefore referred to the
same person. Consequently, the etymology of names played a crucial role in identify-
ing myths stemming from the common “Indo-Germanic” tradition.

51 E. Desveaux, L’analyse des mythes, in: P. Bonté/M. Izard (ed.), Dictionnaire de l’ethnologie et
de l’anthropologie, 2nd ed., Paris 2002, p. 500–501.
52 A. Kuhn, Gandharven und Kentauren, Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung I, 1852,
p. 513–542; Die Sprachvergleichung und die Urgeschichte der indogermanischen Völker, Zeit-
schrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung IV, 1855, p. 81–124.
53 A. Kuhn, Mythologische Studien von Adalbert Kuhn herausgegeben von Ernst Kuhn, vol. 1: Die
Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks. Ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Mythologie der
Indogermanen, Gütersloh 1886.
54 Ibid., p. 5–6.

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152 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

But Kuhn thought that he noticed a meaning related to natural elements in the
names of the various mythological characters. For instance, Bh‫܀‬gu was connected
to ¿re. It was indeed in that mythical family of priests that Agni, the ¿re, was lit by
MƗtariĞvan; certain hymns placed him in the company of gods incarnating clouds and
storm – consequently they could only represent lightning. Etymology con¿rmed this
interpretation, showing that Bh‫܀‬gu derived from Bhrajas, meaning “splendour”, “what
shines” – a hypothesis supported by its great proximity to the Middle High German
term Blic (Àash of lightning).௘55 This tendency to bring mythological ¿gures back to
natural elements is to be found in most articles written by Kuhn, who notably devoted
a study on “bovines in Indo-Germanic mythology”. He showed that cows actually rep-
resented clouds and rays of light.௘56 Always concerned with revealing the underlying
unity of Indo-European mythology, he had found there a way to refer the emergence
of the various Indo-European myths to a common factor, which was nothing else but
the contemplation of nature.

Friedrich Max Müller and the Ambition of a Comparative Science of Mythology

Kuhn never became a university professor, yet his works were in no way marginal and
enjoyed a wide reception amongst German Indologists, promoted by the publication of
his journal.௘57 His nomination to the Science Academy of Berlin con¿rmed his status
as an acknowledged scientist. His works, which had already aroused Weber’s interest,
found a special echo in the second edition of Lassen’s Indische Alterthumskunde, where
he reviewed the etymology of many gods’ names presented in the ¿rst edition. As early
as the 1850s, Müller, who was then a Taylorian Professor of European Languages at
Oxford, became one of the most active supporters of applying comparativism to the
study of myths, as Grimm and Kuhn had started to do. It was in Berlin – where he went
in 1844 to study comparative grammar and Sanskrit with Bopp as well as philosophy
with Schelling – that Müller met Kuhn. At that time, the latter had already attracted
his attention to the period that was common to the various Indo-European peoples.௘58
Müller carried out all of his career in Great Britain yet he remained deeply inÀuenced
by his training in Germany. Although his pattern of thought was also nurtured on the
scienti¿c debates taking place in England, he always saw himself as a representative of
German science in the British Isles. For that matter, when he published four volumes
compiling various essays, he entitled them Chips from a German Workshop.௘59
The fact that Müller was soon considered as the most eminent representative of
what he called “comparative mythology” (vergleichende Mythologie) was certainly

55 Kuhn, Die Herabkunft, p. 11–13.

56 A. Kuhn, Ein Fragment über die Bedeutung der Rinder in der indogermanischen Mythologie, in:
Mythologische Studien von Adalbert Kuhn, hrsg. von Ernst Kuhn, vol. II: Hinterlassene mytho-
logische Abhandlungen, Gütersloh 1912, p. 91–182.
57 As off 1841, Kuhn was a teacher at the Köllnisches Gymnasium in Berlin, and became headmaster
in 1870. See Stache-Rosen, p. 38.
58 Fr. M. Müller, My Autobiography: A Fragment, London 1901, repr. New York 1909, p. 150.
59 Fr. M. Müller, Chips from a German Workshop, London 1867–1875, 4 vol.

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due to his efforts in presenting this new ¿eld of studies as a full-Àedged science. His
¿rst attempt at systematically describing its content and explaining the central role
of the ‫ۿ‬gveda was expressed in his 1856 essay on Comparative Mythology, which
was translated into French in 1859, at Renan’s instigation.௘60 Deeply marked by his
Protestant faith, Müller was convinced that mankind, which he thought of in strictly
monogenistic terms, was guided by “Heavenly Wisdom” and intended to accomplish
God’s “impenetrable goal”. Just as men stopped believing that demons were at work
in nature, they had to become aware of the rational nature of history, which did not
result from chance but was “the expression of a heavenly power”. This conception of
history as a chain whose ¿rst links made it possible to understand the last ones shows
that Müller, trained in Kant’s and Hegel’s thought during his studies in Leipzig, was
deeply marked by the historical thought of German idealism. Müller had also attended
the courses of Rudolph Hermann Lotze, a disciple of the realist philosopher Johann
Friedrich Herbart. Therefore, this idealist inÀuence was affected by the approach that
consisted in replacing philosophical speculation with a linguistic analysis of concepts.௘61
This linguistic dimension in historical investigation was all the more central as he con-
sidered language as man’s earliest activity.
As was the case with all Indologists confronted with the issue of origins, Müller
found himself faced with a subject which, because of its in¿nite nature, was constantly
slipping away. He identi¿ed the epoch of the ¿rst enunciations, aimed to designate the
most rudimentary ideas, with the ¿rst period of humanity, which he called “rhematic”.௘62
However, he had to admit that it could well have been preceded by yet another epoch.
The second period, which he called “dialectic” was that of the division into linguistic
families, respectively Turanian (remaining at the stage of “agglutination”, a character-
istic of the original language), Aryan (Indo-European or “Indo-Germanic”) and Semitic.
Then came a third period, called “mythological” or “mythopoeic”, an intermediary
stage between the creation of language that took place during the two preceding periods
and the appearance of national literatures. Given their apparent absurdity, the myths
that men invented during this period were likely to shed doubts as to the rationality of

60 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, in: Chips from a German Workshop, vol. II, London 1868,
p. 1–141; French translation: Essai de mythologie comparée, traduit de l’anglais de Mr. Max Mül-
ler, London/Paris 1859. Renan says in his foreword, p. IV: “I engaged a person, enthusiastic for
these studies, to translate the whole text”, but Georges Perrot, author of a new translation pub-
lished in 1873, considers Renan in his introduction to be the real author of the 1859 translation
whereas it seems that the translation was not done by Renan but by his wife. Müller’s further texts
dedicated to comparative mythology are the foreword to the volume of the ‫ۿ‬gveda Sanhita, in
1856, and a book published in two volumes in 1897: Contributions to the Science of Mythology,
London/New York.
61 L. P. van den Bosch, Friedrich Max Müller. A Life Devoted to the Humanities, Leiden/Boston/
Köln 2002, p. 23–24. Müller also followed the classes of the Herbart’s disciple Moritz Wilhelm
Drobisch. See M. Espagne, Approches anthropologiques et racines philologiques des transferts
culturels, Revue germanique internationale 21/2004, p. 218–219.
62 The neologism “rhematic” is formed on the term “rheme”, itself deriving from Greek rhema (that
which is said), synonymous with predicate.

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154 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

human history: for instance, the myth of Cronus who swallowed up and then disgorged
his still-alive children. This is where the crux of studying mythology is to be found:
in the challenge set by the apparent irrationality of this third, “mythological” period,
which preceded the fourth one, the “national” epoch when the great linguistic families
were subdivided. Either one could explain how such absurd myths could have been
created by man, or one had to admit that human history was less regular than had been
thought, and likely to experience accidents. Hence the need for a science of mythology,
the only science able to reveal underlying rationality at work in the myths stemming
from the “mythological period” when the different linguistic families had yet to be
subdivided. This would thus save the linear postulate of the human race.௘63
Müller’s reÀection on mythology was fundamentally marked by some hesitation as
to its degree of generality. On the one hand, the question regarded the human race as a
whole, whose continuous advance toward progress and the ful¿lment of the heavenly
spirit had to be protected; on the other hand, since the mythological period started
after the ¿rst separation of humanity into linguistic families, investigation took on
a particularistic turn, which involved considering a group – the Indo-European fam-
ily, or “Aryan” in Müller’s terminology – and no longer the whole of mankind. Such
reorientation was inevitable since the only instrument that could be used to go back
to that period was comparative grammar, whose keys were provided by Sanskrit and
which acted as a “telescope” making it possible to see distinctly what was otherwise
lost in the fog of the past and space.௘64

Myth and Language: A Pathological Relationship?

The close link between comparative grammar and the study of myths was further
strengthened by Müller’s conviction that mythology draws its origin from language. He
was inÀuenced by German idealism as well as by Hermann von Helmholtz’ conception
of language, according to which man only becomes aware of his perceptions after he
has set them in language, by giving them a name. Müller thought that words could only
spring up from sensations.௘65 In Comparative Mythology he remarked that the words he
had spotted as belonging to the common “Aryan” fund (once again understood in the
improper sense of Indo-European) were all substantives designating concrete objects,
which could be sensed. The “Aryan” language (the common Indo-European) was
therefore no other than “the conscious expression in sound of impressions received by
all the senses”.௘66 From then on, the problem that must have arisen for the speakers of
this “Aryan” language was to name abstract facts such as day, night, seasons, storms,
or such collective words as “the sky”: the structure of language necessarily led to
treating these abstract realities as concrete facts, and attributing to them actions that,
of course, they could not undertake. Furthermore, at this ancient stage of language,

63 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 8–15.

64 Ibid., p. 16.
65 Bosch, p. 238.
66 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 54.

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words were divided into two genres, which led enquirers to the consideration of them
as gendered objects. It was therefore impossible to evoke abstract realities without
ascribing them an individual, active, gendered, and in the end personal character.௘67 To
Müller, the key to the emergence of myths was to be found precisely in these de¿cien-
cies of language:
Every word, whether noun or verb, had still its full original power during the
mythopoeic ages. Words were heavy and unwieldy. They said more than they
ought to say, and hence, much of the strangeness of the mythological language,
which we can only understand by watching the natural growth of speech. Where
we speak of the sun following the dawn, the ancient poets could only speak and
think of the Sun loving and embracing the Dawn.௘68
However, this form of mythological language was but a step in the myth-forming pro-
cess. Since most names were originally predicates that designated an object via what
was supposed to be its most characteristic attribute, and since there could be several
attributes competing for a given object, in the end this object would receive several
names, which brought about a situation of “polyonimy”. Conversely, several objects
could have the same main attribute and be designated by the same name, leading to a
situation of “synonymy”.௘69 To the confusion thus generated was added a time factor.
Successive generations gradually lost the meaning of the metaphorical thought and
language, to the point that what was once only poetry ended up being taken literally,
and the true etymology of names was forgotten. This led to anthropomorphising or
zoomorphising the realities described. For instance, the sun retained claws and a mane
even long after the metaphor of the lion, which had given it these attributes, was forgot-
ten. Language went from metaphorical to mythological, and the names initially used as
metaphors for natural phenomena henceforth referred to individual, immortal beings,
i. e. gods. Myths only came about at the end of this progressive process of losing the
meaning of metaphors, when gods (numina) replaced words (nomina). Later on, Mül-
ler was to call this process “the disease of language”.௘70
To him, only the joint use of comparative grammar and etymology made it pos-
sible to examine factually the stages of this transformation perceived theoretically.
Languages in which a word had not lost much of its original sense were likely to help
¿nd it again in those languages where it had become totally obscure. Hence the ne-
cessity to refocus studies on the ‫ۿ‬gveda, because “the mythology of the Veda [was]
to comparative mythology what Sanskrit [had] been to comparative grammar.”௘71 In
certain hymns, the names of gods still appeared in their original meaning, which was

67 Ibid., p. 55–56.
68 Ibid., p. 63–64.
69 Ibid., p. 71.
70 An expression he notably used in the ¿rst volume of his Contribution to the Science of Mythology
(New York 1897), p. 68. It was under the inÀuence of Schelling’s philosophy of mythology that
the idea that mythology resulted from a “disease of language” had come to him.
71 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 73–75.

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156 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

purely predicative. Furthermore, from one hymn to the next, a god could appear, in
turn, as the father or the brother of another god. The ‫ۿ‬gveda hymns thus enabled the
European reader to see, unfurling under his eyes, the theogonic process that took place
in the Indo-European family. This is why Müller, like Roth and Weber, envisaged the
‫ۿ‬gveda as the pivot of an intellectual exchange between India and Europe:
The Veda is the real Theogony of the Aryan races, while that of Hesiod is a dis-
torted caricature of the original image. If we want to know whither the human
mind, though endowed with the natural consciousness of a divine power, is driven
necessarily and inevitably by the irresistible force of language as applied to su-
pernatural and abstract ideas, we must read the Veda; and if we want to tell the
Hindus what they are worshipping – mere names of natural phenomena, gradu-
ally obscured, personi¿ed, and dei¿ed – we must make them read the Veda.௘72
In comparing it to the ‫ۿ‬gveda, the philologist can hope to “reduce each myth to its
primitive, unsystematic form” and to ¿nd again, in these “petri¿ed relics”, traces of
“organic thought”, i. e. living.௘73 In that same 1856 essay, Müller had no qualms about
placing side by side Vedic and Greek mythologies, as well as the Romantic work of
the British poet William Wordsworth, to show that nature is a prime and everlasting
source of inspiration for poets. Since at the same time he championed the idea that
the poetic language preceded that of prose, he could assert the notion that nature was
always at the origin of myths.௘74 This is why the scholars of that time saw, in his and
Kuhn’s works, the expression of a “school of Naturmythologie” (naturmythologische
Schule). De facto, the respective approaches of both these scholars met on several
points: in that they applied the principles of comparative grammar to mythology; in
the trust they put in the “paleontological” ability of etymology; and, lastly, in the way
they considered – following the Romantics௘75 – that the contemplation of nature was
the ¿rst driving force of mythology.
However, amongst natural phenomena, Müller gave preference to those related to
the sun. Indeed, he considered that the regular succession of dawn and dusk, day and
night, made the sun an especially striking subject for the human mind. Natural phe-
nomena of a meteorological nature, to which Kuhn granted priority, were too much
marked by irregularity to have been a striking enough motif to give rise to the ¿rst
myths.௘76 Moreover, Müller’s works in comparative mythology denoted a more gen-
eral aim than those of Kuhn, who was mainly seeking to complete the general picture
of Indo-European society before it split into nations. Müller’s works in comparative
mythology systematically fell within the more general framework of a philosophy of

72 Ibid., p. 76.
73 Ibid., p. 82–83.
74 Ibid., p. 30 s.
75 K. H. Kohl, Naturmythologie, in: H. Cancik et alii (ed.), Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher
Grundbegriffe, vol. IV, Stuttgart/Berlin/Köln/Mainz 1998, p. 228.
76 Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 139

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history and language whose goal was to show that the disorder of mythology was only
apparent, that it could be rationally explained, and that mythology was subject to the
same “organic” development as language.௘77 Lastly, while Kuhn took a close interest
in the etymology of the names of gods, in his work the part played by the study of
legends was just as important as, or even more important than that of theogenies. On
the other hand, since the ultimate outlook of his scienti¿c work was to know the path
taken by the human mind in its evolution, Müller envisaged mythology diachronically,
in its progressive emergence; and he studied it in relation to religion in order to see how
these two domains were articulated in history. Applying the comparativist paradigm
to cultural history thus brought about successive sciences, comparative mythology
nurturing a new form of comparativism, this time applied to religions.

The Comparative Science of Religion

versus the General History of Religions

From Mythology to Religion

Although in the historical-philosophical view adopted by Müller, the question of the
relations between myth and religion was necessarily central, it remained surprisingly
confused in his different works. While in some cases he presented mythology as a
phase that logically preceded religion, since it was at the start of the formation of gods,
in other cases he considered mythology and religion as concomitant and deemed that
the difference between them was not just of degree but of nature.௘78 Mythology and
religion stemmed from the same substratum, yet henceforth they followed divergent
developing processes and ended up with equally divergent forms. He thus compared
mythology to rust and religion to the iron on which rust was deposited, or he speci¿ed
that mythology was a parasite of religion and in no way its marrow.௘79 Mythology there-
fore had an ambiguous relationship with religion, developing on its ¿eld but without
identifying with it. Such images, which were not very complimentary for mythology,
bring to mind that to Müller, it developed as a “disease of language”. If mythology
resulted from the evolution of a disease, then on the other hand, religion, although
stemming from the same substratum, must have been the outcome of a healthy evo-
lution. The relation between mythology and religion was more complex than a mere
chronological succession. In order to be able to follow the developing path of the
human mind, it was not suf¿cient to envisage mythology and religion as mere succes-
sive stages. One rather had to start by separating “the truly religious elements from the
mythological crust” in order to “get a clearer insight” into their content and genesis.௘80

77 Müller calls this hidden meaning hyponoia. See Fr. M. Müller, Physical Religion. The Gifford
Lectures Delivered Before the University of Glasgow in 1890 by F. Max Müller, K. M., London
1891, p. 271.
78 Fr. M. Müller, Physical Religion, p. 276–277.
79 Ibid., p. 293 and 299.
80 Fr. M. Müller, Preface in Chips from a German Workshop, London 1867, p. XII.

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158 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

Müller liked to make science accessible to the general public. He was notably in-
vited to take part in the highly reputed Hibbert Lectures and Gifford Lectures – confer-
ences ¿nanced by private foundations, whose topics dealt with the analysis of religions.
The content of Müller’s Hibbert Lectures was published in 1878, under the title Lec-
tures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as illustrated by the Religions of India.௘81
He considered that all the attempts at de¿ning religion put forward by Schleiermacher,
Hegel, Feuerbach and Comte had failed. Even though he thought that these successive
failures proved that religion could only be apprehended through its historical evolution,
he sought to extricate its intrinsic characteristics and this led him to renew with his
theory of perception. He thus suggested de¿ning religion as “religious conscience”, a
form of conscience that would come and complete “rational conscience” and “sensu-
ous conscience”.௘82 He clari¿ed his thought by quoting the de¿nition of religion which
he had given in an earlier book (Introduction to the Science of Religion, 1873) and
which had been much criticised:
Religion is a mental faculty which, independent of, nay in spite of sense and
reason, enables man to apprehend the in¿nite under different names and under
varying disguises. Without that faculty, no religion, not even the lowest worship
of idols and fetishes, would be possible; and if we will but listen attentively, we
can hear in all religions a groaning of the spirit, a struggle to conceive the in-
conceivable, to utter the unutterable, a longing after the In¿nite, a love of God.௘83
The term “faculty” did not refer to anything ‘substantial’, to some driving force that
would have had an autonomous existence. Rather, it corresponded to the “subjective”
aspect of religion and designated an action process, “potential energy”. As for the term
“in¿nite”, Müller justi¿ed it because of its extremely high degree of generality, which
was perfect to designate something transcending sense and reason. Starting from this
de¿nition, the problem that arose was to have people – notably positivist philosophers
– admit that what escaped sense and reason could nevertheless be apprehended by man.
Müller strove to demonstrate that any perception of the ¿nite gave rise to a “concomi-
tant presentiment” of the existence of the in¿nite. According to Kant, man could only
know objects as they appeared to him and not as they “were intrinsically”: the “thing in
itself” was beyond him. Generally speaking, the whole domain of the “supersensuous”
escaped from theoretical knowledge. Müller supported all this theory of knowledge
yet claimed to go further than Kant. That the supersensuous could not be submitted to
theoretical knowledge did not exclude that it could be the subject of another type of
knowledge. To Kant, while sensuous things belonged to the world of phainomenon and
could give rise to theoretical knowledge, the supersensuous or in¿nite belonged to the
world of nooumenon and could be apprehended by conscience only. Müller took up
these two terms again and added a third one: aistheton (from the Greek aisthanesthai,

81 London 1878.
82 Ibid., p. 17–21.
83 Ibid., p. 23.

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A Source for Science 159

to feel). De¿ning men precisely as sentient beings, he considered that they were in
contact with the supersensuous world and that this relation of contact preceded the
relation of thought: the supersensuous was never straightaway a nooumenon but only
became one once it had been an aistheton. This conception of the “constant contact”
of men with the supersensuous (in Kantian terms), i. e. the in¿nite (in Müller’s terms)
logically followed from his theory of language, which said that no concept was pos-
sible, other than preceded by perception. The process leading to consciousness was
the following: sensuous perception gave rise to sensuous knowledge, which then led
to the elaboration of concepts which, together, produced conceptual knowledge. Thus,
nothing really existed in man’s consciousness if not previously named; hence his ef-
forts and trial and error to manage naming his presentiment of the in¿nite.௘84 This could
only be undertaken thanks to his religious “faculty”.
Approaching religion from this view of perception, Müller was hoping to overcome
the growing gap between science and religion taking place in Great Britain, as it had
in Germany.௘85 Given that in the end, the “faculty” that enabled men to apprehend the
in¿nite was none other than human perception; given that the idea of God and the Ab-
solute was never given in advance but resulted from efforts painfully undertaken by
men throughout the ages in order to name the in¿nite, Müller questioned the notion
of a direct divine revelation. In doing so, he was the direct heir of German historicism
and the notion that the origin of religion could not be examined in the perspective of
the divine revelation dogma, which had no rational basis: “The only faculty we claim
is perception, the only revelation we claim is history.”௘86 The idea was not to question
the existence of religion, nor even the reality of the in¿nite, but rather to relocate its
study on a historical plane and to historicise the revelation itself. This implied leading
an empirical investigation. Since man thought of successive names (as they revealed
inappropriate) to designate the in¿nite, to establish the history of religion came down
to retracing the list of these denominations. In his effort to reconcile religion and sci-
ence, Müller thus found himself involved in a historical enquiry, in which linguistic
analysis was, once again, brought to play a prime role.
The correlation between perception, language and religion makes it possible to shed
light on the paradoxical de¿nition of mythology that Müller put forward, as stemming
from the same “block” as religion, but not to be identi¿ed with it. His muddled chro-
nology of the links between mythology and religion can be explained by the various
meanings he gave to these terms. When he refused to consider that mythology could
have been at the origin of religion, it was because he understood the latter in the sense
of an intuition of the in¿nite, the divine. The attempts of men to name what he felt
intuitively gave rise to mythology, which, at ¿rst, consisted in spontaneously meta-
phorical language, before referring to embodiments elaborated from these metaphors
when their original sense became lost to men. When these personi¿cations gave way

84 Ibid., p. 44–47.
85 D. Fr. Strauss’ book Das Leben Jesu had been translated into English as early as 1846.
86 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, p. 32.

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160 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

to more abstract notions and when the mythological names were understood as refer-
ring to supreme gods, then mythology generated religion, this time understood in its
historical form and no more as an intuition of the divine.௘87 In any case, Müller could
not accept the theories that derived religion from myth and that considered myth as
primeval: to him, it could only take shape if there pre-existed a feeling of the in¿nite
and a linguistic effort in order to apprehend it.

A Science Modelled on Comparative Grammar

In this, Müller found a fundamental argument to justify his choice of a linguistic history
approach: the investigation on the history of religion – which only exempli¿ed that of
the human mind – had to start not from myths but from the roots of words. Indeed, in
going back on the strata of the religious history, scholars were assured to ¿nd clearer
and clearer conceptions of the divine. Nevertheless, in accordance with the very basic
image in which Müller viewed the original language, they were just as certain to ¿nd
a state of language that left man especially helpless in his efforts to name the in¿nite.
The origin of religion logically led to the origins of language, and this was why “the
history of religion [was] in one sense a history of language”.௘88 Using a resolutely or-
ganicist vocabulary, Müller presented the history of language and religion in terms
of “development” and called “roots” the elements from which religion took shape.௘89
Consequently, in religion – as in language – there were no new creations but merely
transformations, combination changes, stemming from these “root elements”. The ap-
proach Müller recommended was one of a true “etymology of religion”,௘90 for which
linguistic etymology worked as both a model and a tool.
However, to model the approach of the science of religion from that of language,
one had to have equivalent empirical material at one’s disposal. To Müller, such was
the case, given that in the matter of religion, documentary de¿ciencies had largely
been ¿lled in the ¿rst decades of the 19th century. This concerned the Semitic do-
main (with the discovery of the Assyrian inscriptions and tablets, the application of
historical critique to the Old Testament and the Koran) as well as the Indo-European
¿eld, with the uncovering of the Vedas, the Mazdeist Zend-Avesta, and the Buddhist
Tripi‫ܒ‬aka. Making a distinction between these two large groups of religious writings,
Müller once again modelled the religious science processes on the analysis patterns
of comparative grammar. Indeed, scholars had to share the task, each one devoting
himself to one speci¿c family of religions. The reason for this was not only to end up
mastering the considerable amount of accumulated material, but also to apply compara-
tivism onto elements that could be compared, i. e. homogeneous ones.௘91 By replacing

87 R. W. Neufeldt, F. Max Müller and the Rҕgҕ -Veda. A Study of its Role in his Work and Thought,
Calcutta 1980, p. 97.
88 Quoted in Bosch, p. 311.
89 Fr. M. Müller, Preface, p. X–XI, and Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, p. 257.
90 Quoted in Bosch, p. 315.
91 Fr. M. Müller, Preface, p. XIX.

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purely geographical taxonomy (the languages of Asia, Africa etc) with genealogical
distinctions (Indo-European, Semitic languages), comparative grammar had indeed
shown what criteria were pertinent in order to elaborate classi¿cations. Lastly, and this
was a typical argument of German Indology, since religion was born within language,
which reÀected the spirit of its speakers, then the spirit of the various religions should
vary according to the linguistic families that their respective writings were linked to:
“Aryan” on the one hand, “Semitic” on the other.௘92
There, Müller once again brought into play his ambiguous and erroneous use of the
term “Aryan” as a synonym for “Indo-European”, in opposition to the “Semitic” group
whose boundaries were also determined by language. This shows how linguistic gene-
alogy based on Sanskrit led to exclude the Jewish intellectual tradition from European
culture. The confusion between “Aryan” and “Indo-European” was further aggravated
because he transposed it from the linguistic to the cultural plane, making the “Aryan”
family essential, to the point of speaking of a “race” even though he claimed that he
understood this racial kinship from a strictly intellectual viewpoint, only in terms of
“spiritual Àesh and blood”. In various writings, he af¿rmed that the identi¿cation of
respectively “Aryan” and “Semitic” religious families had a purely methodological
function, and that the comparative method did not allow any hierarchy between the
groups compared. The characteristics he thought he detected in the relation of each
group to religion supposedly entailed no value judgement.௘93 Incidentally, against Re-
nan’s theory that “Semites” had a monotheistic௘94 instinct while Indo-Europeans were
more inclined to polytheism, Müller envisaged the differences between their respec-
tive religions as the result of a historical development: to him, Semitic religions ended
focussing on “God in history”, i. e. the idea of a national god, while “Aryan” religions
crystallised on “God in nature”.௘95 According to him, acknowledging that this differen-
tiation took place in history, in line with the respective characters of the Indo-European
and Semitic languages, was the only way to explain that Indo-Europeans could have
embraced such a monotheist religion as Christianity. On the other hand, should one
persist in attributing an essentially polytheist nature to Indo-Europeans, their joining
Christianity would remain incomprehensible.

Rudolf Roth and the Refusal of Religious Essentialism

As was the case with comparative mythology, a tension between the general and speci¿c
extended over the comparative science of religions. Müller was convinced that, broadly,
the evolution of religion always went through the same stages: from the feeling of the
divine to monotheism, via a polytheist phase. Consequently, while the “Aryan” religion

92 Fr. M. Müller, Lecture on the Vedas or the Sacred Books of the Brahmans, Delivered at Leeds,
1865, in: Chips from a German Workshop, vol. I, London 1867, p. 4.
93 Neufeldt, p. 109; Bosch, p. 354.
94 Fr. M. Müller, Physical Religion, p. 220–221.
95 Fr. M. Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion. Four Lectures Delivered at the Royal In-
stitution in February and March 1870, London 1893, p. 57 on.

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162 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

did have a speci¿c evolution – since it was related to the nature of the Indo-European
languages, this evolution could also be representative of that followed by the Semitic
religion. The “Aryan” religion was all the more essential as a priority subject for study
since it was the only one, other than the ‫ۿ‬gveda, possessing a sacred writing in which
all the stages of religious evolution were documented.௘96 To refer to the most ancient
religious state attested to in the ‫ۿ‬gveda, Müller used the term “henotheism”, shaped
from the Greek henos, meaning ‘one’, as opposed to monos, meaning ‘only one’. He
thus wanted to signify a third religious situation with regard to monotheism and poly-
theism: a situation admitting the existence of several gods, alternately revered and
respectively understood as encompassing all others. Henotheism carried on into poly-
theism whenever the various gods started to be associated in couples or were at least
organised so as to form a pantheon, most often dominated by a supreme god.௘97 Gener-
ally associated with the “mythological” period during which the “disease of language”
turned nomina into numina, this stage was a setback for henotheism. However, it was
a necessary phase so that there could take shape a monotheistic form of religion, illus-
trated by hymns expressing the unity of the Divine in the ‫ۿ‬gveda. As the ultimate stage
in the religious evolution attested to in the ‫ۿ‬gveda, the impossibility to give a personal
shape to this concept of the “Divine” led to creating the category of the Absolute.௘98
To Müller, the seeds of Christianity were contained in religions that pre-existed the
incarnation of Christ. For this reason, there was no need to fear that dealing with the
Bible as a mere historical writing or even comparing Christianity to other religions
could undermine the Christian faith. On the contrary, “the Science of Religion [would]
for the ¿rst time assign to Christianity its right place among the religions of the world;
[…] it [would] restore to the whole history of the world, in its unconscious progress
towards Christianity, its true and sacred character.”௘99
According to Müller, instead of depreciating religions that were foreign to Christi-
anity, missionaries should rather highlight their common points.௘100 Eager to promote
applying comparativism to the study of religion, he showed that it was a tool of ¿rst
quality to renew Christianity within Europe itself.௘101 Indeed, once established, histori-
cal religions tended to decline because of conÀicts of interest between men. In order
to thwart this decline, it was necessary to undertake “constant reform.” This not only
applied to the Hindus, who had to be shown that the pure form of their religion was
that contained in the Vedas, but also to Christians. They would certainly bene¿t from
the teachings of the comparative science of religions, since it showed both the common

96 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Origins and Growth of Religion, p. 131.

97 Ibid., p. 289.
98 Bosch, p. 350–351; Neufeldt, p. 51; R. N. Dandekar, Vedic Religion and Mythology (A Survey
of the Work of Some Western Scholars), Poona 1965, p. 11.
99 Fr. M. Müller, Preface, p. XX.
100 Ibid., p. XXI–XXII.
101 P. Borgeaud, Le problème du comparatisme en histoire des religions, Revue européenne des
sciences sociales 24, 1986, p. 59–75.

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A Source for Science 163

fund of the various religions and the irreducible speci¿city of Christianity. This ap-
proach was both secular and sacred. Admittedly, it required that Christianity be dealt
with as a historical form of religion amongst others; however, this made it possible to
regenerate it. The comparative science of religions not only brought to light the prog-
ress of religion in history, but it contributed to it.௘102
Müller’s theories about mythology and religion bear the mark of the British context.
However, they are still deeply sustained by the German intellectual universe of the ¿rst
half of the 19th century, understood in its full complexity: an idealistic philosophy cor-
rected by empiricism, which the historical and comparative approach had contributed
to assert; a liberal form of Protestantism, which claimed to have recourse to science
in order to restore sound and solid foundations to religion. Müller’s link to Germany
was all the closer because his theories were very widely received there, as can be seen
from his af¿liation to a ‘naturalist mythology school’ (Naturmythologische Schule),
alongside Kuhn. In fact, his works gave rise to many reactions in Germany, all the
more so since those Indologists who were then holding academic positions were of
Müller’s generation and had been acquainted with him for a while.
Such was the case with Rudolf Roth, whom Müller had met on the benches of
Burnouf’s lectures at the Collège de France in 1845. In many aspects, the approach
promoted by Müller brings to mind Roth’s effort to reconcile science and religion via
the study of Vedism. Both men endeavoured to demonstrate that science can come and
rescue religion by highlighting the unwavering nature of a faith, which consequently
could not be destabilised by a historical enterprise. For Roth and Müller, this line of
argumentation was both the result of their true attachment to religion and a conscious
strategy to ward off the critics that could come from the representatives of dogmatic
theology. They also had in common that they emphasised the common points between
Vedism (and, via it, the primitive form of religion) and Christianity, considering them
as the basis from which the missionary enterprise should be made more operational.
While they operated on a similar moral framework, they diverged on the deep na-
ture of the study of religion. Admittedly, both of them were convinced that religion
needed a historical approach, only feasible if one took into account the religions of
India instead of restricting oneself to Christianity, Judaism and (in the best of cases)
Islam. Underlying both their works was the notion of a close interweaving of language,
thought and religion. However, the philosophical opposition provided the starting point
and the organising principle for Müller’s science of religion, whose aim was to high-
light the irreducible constituents of religion by comparing their historical forms. On
the other hand, Roth refused to produce a general discourse on religion and resolutely
limited himself to describing the various historical religions; while he sought to high-
light the great lines of the evolution of the human mind as it was incarnated in religion,
in no case did he want to de¿ne the essence of religion.௘103

102 Fr. M. Müller, Preface, p. XXIII–XXVIII.

103 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 42.

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164 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

In his lectures on the ‫ۿ‬gveda, he expressly stipulated that the designation “history
of religions” (Geschichte der Religionen) was the only legitimate one, while “science
of religion” (Religionswissenschaft) as de¿ned by Müller seemed unrealistic to him.
History of religion [Religionsgeschichte] = not history of religion [Geschichte
der Religion] but of religions [Geschichte der Religionen]. […] [annotation in
the margin: “science of religion”]. The history of religions gives up establishing
a relation between ideas while it is already provided by history. It simply seeks
to note and describe the origin and content of the various religions in history,
after excluding pagan religions. It has therefore no other way to take than that
of philology and history. Its aim is to complete general history as concerns that
aspect of the development of the human mind.௘104
Founding a “science of religion” would then come down to imagining links between
religions other than those attested to by history. In any case, the ambition to determine
the essence of religion was utopian, since available archives would always remain
incomplete and would not make it possible to know all the religions of the world.
Furthermore, in accordance with the relativist lessons of history, Roth insisted on the
speci¿c way that each people had to “¿nd their way towards God and gods”; if reli-
gions have a common origin, their differentiation took place thanks to the emergence
of distinct “nationalities”.௘105 Consequently, his way to approach the various religions
of the world differed from Müller’s. Indeed, he chose an ethno-geographical repre-
sentation over a chronological one. To him, this was also the only way to manage in-
tegrating Indian religions, since India had no political history (a widely-spread notion
at that time). He alternatively described the “Asian religions” of the “Aryan” peoples,
the Semitic peoples and the peoples of Northern and Western Asia, then went on to
the “European religions” of the “Indo-Germans” (from Ancient Greeks to Slavs), the
“American religions” of Mexico and Peru, and, lastly, the “religions of the peoples of
the Paci¿c area”. However, in actual facts, all the “Aryan” religions, i. e. Indian and
Iranian, represented the greatest part of his lectures, the other chapters being very brief
and rather enumerative: Roth only mentioned these other religions to indicate their
existence. Since the religions “of the savages” remained widely unknown, and the
accounts of travellers and missionaries spread rather false notions about them, Roth
deemed that it was impossible to know the essence of religion. He therefore took the
opposite view from Müller’s, whose conclusion was rather to refer to a more reliable
corpus – Vedism, speci¿cally. In using an ethno-geographical presentation, Roth pre-
cisely adopted the approach that Müller deemed out of date in relation to the genea-

104 UBT, Roth, Rudolf v., Ma I 148a, Bl. 3. The “history of religions” as conceived by Roth is also
conducted against the “philosophy of religion” exercised by the School of Tübingen. Admittedly,
he placed this school above dogmatic theology, yet he deemed that it did not go far enough in
its historical approach. See I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 79.
105 UBT, Roth, Rudolf v., Mh II 149a (notes taken by his student Albert Widmann, on the lecture
“Allgemeine Religionsgeschichte”).

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A Source for Science 165

logical taxonomy inspired by the model of comparative grammar. In fact, Roth did
not place “European” religions and the “Aryan” religions of India and Ancient Persia
in the same group. His classi¿cation did not bring to light a notion that he otherwise
promoted, inherited from linguistic comparativism: the idea that there had existed a
common “Indo-Germanic” religion as there had a common “Indo-Germanic” language.
On the plane of classi¿cation as it was understood at the time, Roth’s methods were
not as modern as those used by Müller.
This being said, in other respects Roth remained more cautious than his colleague.
Both tended to overestimate the reliability of their analyses in comparative etymol-
ogy – many of which then proved to be untenable. However, in that he wanted to
systematise mythological and religious phenomena Müller gave out more categorical
conclusions, sometimes even ill-considered ones. While Roth acknowledged the great
importance of the sun in the genesis of Vedic myths, he did not go as far as attributing
it a systematic, universal role, as Müller did. He remained cautious in his description
of the Vedic religious development, notably admitting that his “progress” could be
punctuated with accidents.

Dissensions and Convergences around the “German School”௘106

Discordances to a Background of Rivalries

While Roth’s care to oppose Müller’s Religionswissenschaft was linked to scienti¿c
divergences, personal factors also played an unquestionable part. Müller af¿rmed that
both had already developed some antagonism during the few months when they rubbed
shoulders at Burnouf’s lectures in Paris.௘107 It should be said that Roth stemmed from a
family of ministers and teachers, had lost his parents at an early age and was of a very
austere nature, very demanding of himself and not very talkative.௘108 This contrasted
with the reputation of Müller, who was a regular visitor at the court of the Saxony-
Dessau Duchy, his place of origin, and very comfortable in society, as can be seen
from his familiarity with the highest spheres of the British society.௘109 The relationship
between Roth and Müller mainly deteriorated when Müller published the ‫ۿ‬gveda. Roth
had arrived in London before Müller and had undertaken the publication of the ‫ۿ‬gveda
under Wilson’s direction. Since this project did not succeed, Otto von Böhtlingk had
envisaged taking over the initiative with the ¿nancial support of the Saint-Petersburg
Science Academy, which he was a member of.௘110 This project also failed and in the end

106 From the expression used by the American Sanskritist Whitney in a letter to his former master
Roth (New Haven, February 18, 1868) (UBT, Md 762c 34, Whitney, W. D., Bl. 485–486).
107 Bosch, p. 272.
108 R. Garbe, Roth (Walter) Rudolf (von), Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 53, Leipzig 1907,
p. 549–564.
109 Müller was well-connected to William Ewart Gladstone, four-times Prime Minister of Great
Britain; he was received by Empress Victoria several times.
110 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 49.

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166 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

it was Müller who was able to publish the ‫ۿ‬gveda Samhita in several volumes, which
gave rise to long-lasting resentment from his Indologist colleagues.௘111
In Germany, Roth and Böhtlingk – along with Weber – had a dominant position
within Indology: Ernst Windisch himself referred to them as the “triumvirate”.௘112 Es-
tablished in his “¿ef” in Tübingen and rather inclined to reserve, Roth did not express
himself in a personal way about Müller, be it in his letters or his articles, whereas
Böhtlingk and Weber were involved in an open dispute with their Britain-based col-
league. In a letter to Müller dated from January 1877,௘113 Weber recapitulated the ins
and outs of their discord. According to him, in the 1840s already, the feeling of friend-
ship between them existed despite “differences in character”. They nevertheless did
each other favours, and Müller had helped Weber in obtaining funds from the East
India Company for the publication of the White Yajurveda. However, a very aggres-
sive review by Müller, published in 1864 in the Saturday Review, along with other
disparaging remarks, had decided Weber to reduce his relations with Müller to the
strict minimum. After he published an answer to the article in the Saturday Review in
his journal Indische Studien (vol. 9), he tried to ¿nd bases for an agreement during a
meeting with Müller in Kiel in 1869. The latter refused to make apologies so Weber
gave up making peace (“my Buddhism did not go that far”௘114) and decided to publish
materials he had gathered in order to demolish Müller’s criticisms. He even broke off
all personal communication. At the date when Weber was summing up these facts, both
authors were still at the stage where they exchanged acrimonious reviews, and Weber
was irritated to see Otto von Böhtlingk, who until then had sided with him, resolving
to forgive Müller.
The quarrel was bitter. In his preface to the 6th volume of the ‫ۿ‬gveda Sanhita,
Müller had accused Roth and Böhtlingk of a serious omission, that of the “technical”
terms gƯtin and Ğirahkampin in the Saint-Petersburg Dictionary. This reproach trig-
gered off Böhtlingk’s fury, because both terms were, indeed, in the dictionary, and,
according to him, had no technical sense. Furthermore, their meaning had already
been provided by Weber in the 4th volume of his Indische Studien. If Müller looked
for them in the Saint-Petersburg Dictionary, then it was because Weber’s interpreta-
tion did not please him. The argument that Böhtlingk௘115 thus put forward can explain
the grievance Weber held against Müller for the criticism he addressed to the authors
of the Dictionary. These rather common dissensions bring to mind how trivial issues,
notably personal, can exaggerate scienti¿c divergences. German Indology, so often
perceived from outside as a homogeneous whole, did not escape this rule.

111 See O. von Böhtlingk, Max Müller als Mythendichter, Saint Petersburg 1891.
112 Windisch, p. 238.
113 StaBi Müller, Frederick Max 2b 1869 (20), Weber to Müller (January 12, 1877).
114 Ibid., Weber to Müller (January 12, 1877).
115 O. von Böhtlingk, Zur Charakteristik Max Müllers, Anzeiger zur Jenaer Literaturzeitung 6, Iena
1876, p. 13–14.

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A Source for Science 167

The Issues of National Belonging

At the height of the dispute, Otto von Böhtlingk did not hesitate to write: “In advising
[Fr. Max Müller] to write less, I’m expressing the feeling of the majority of my col-
leagues. Most of his books and essays border on the commonplace.”௘116 This criticism
shows the background on top of which came the humiliation of having been accused of
important oversights. Indeed, Indologists started to think that Müller’s position was too
invasive, that his writings lost in quality and that they were threatening the scienti¿c
integrity of Indology as a whole. But the great number of Müller’s publications could
largely be explained by his adopting the British habits of popularisation: scienti¿c ac-
tivity was not concentrated in universities only, but also developed within the frame-
work of private foundations where teachers addressed larger audiences. Böhtlingk’s
remark had the effect of implicitly stressing that Müller belonged to an area of scien-
ti¿c production distinct from Germany. This interpretation was con¿rmed by the role
Whitney played in this quarrel. A great promoter of the “German school”,௘117 Whitney
could not bear the British ways that, according to him, Müller had adopted; he nota-
bly denounced his popularising and simplifying works, which he deemed excessive,
even dangerous. He furthermore accused Müller of passing off as science what was
but whimsical Àights of fancy. Moreover, riled that his own books were little read in
Great Britain, he wrote to Weber:
It does not depend altogether on writing English, one’s acquisition of reputa-
tion among speakers of English: one must be among the English personally and
understand how to manage them. Look […] at the fortunes of my volumes […]
there; it could not be more generally and completely ignored if it were written
in Persian. Müller aims at the general public and [illegible: describes?] himself
as a scholar in order to catch and win its favor; you [Weber] write for scholars,
and their gratitude ought to be your suf¿cient reward. You refuse on principle
to dilute what you produce, and it is so strong meat that even scholars of the
lower rank௘118 ¿nd it not easy to digest; you are rather the master of the masters.
In my opinion, you deserts to Sanskrit science are more than double those of
Müller, and that will ¿nally come to be generally acknowledged.௘119
In insisting on the insigni¿cance of the language community amongst English-speakers,
Whitney was marking the boundary between the scienti¿c worlds of Great Britain

116 Ibid., p. 7.
117 My attention was drawn to the antagonism between Whitney and Müller by a communication
presented by Douglas McGetchin, entitled “Max Müller embattled: William Dwight Whitney’s
critique”. This took place within the framework of the “After Max Müller” symposium held in
New Delhi in December 2000. The terms of this dispute are widely documented in the numerous
letters from Whitney to Weber (StaBi 2b 1854 [18], W. D. Whitney) and the exchanges of letters
between Weber and Müller (StaBi 2b 1869 [20] Müller, Frederick Max.)
118 Whitney certainly slipped there, writing lower rank for higher rank.
119 StaBi 2b 1854 (18), W. D. Whitney Bl. 69–72; Whitney to Weber (New Haven, November 4,

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168 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

and the USA, which enabled him to criticise British ways all the more freely. He thus
placed Müller on the British side and opposed his works to those achieved in Germany,
while his praise of Weber emphasised the inalienable seriousness of German schol-
ars. The slightest occasion was an excuse to deny the man he nicknamed “Maximus
Minimus”௘120 the qualities that made up German science. When, in 1872, the Univer-
sity of Strasbourg was founded by Prussia following the annexation of Alsace to the
new Reich, Müller was offered a post as Professor, which he ended up turning down
after teaching there for one semester. Whitney then commented on this episode in the
following manner:
I had heard nothing of Müller’s call to Strasbourg, except from Roth’s men-
tioning that he had declined it, apparently because the pay was not suf¿cient.
He is indeed quite the man for the place, being, in my view, decidedly more a
Frenchman, in constitution, than a German; a man that makes many clever hits,
but never does a solidly good thing; a man of form rather than substance; in a
word, a charlatan.௘121
Compared to Great Britain or France, Germany still had the advantage, and Müller
could never avail himself of it. In the dispute between Weber, Böhtlingk and Müller,
Whitney had obviously taken the “German” side. When Böhtlingk informed Weber
of the truce proposed by Müller – which, for his part, he had agreed to – the Berlin
Sanskritist said he was ready to consider this offer yet on two conditions: that Müller
publicly apologise in a journal, and that he extend his hand to Whitney. This “peace
manoeuvre”௘122 did not succeed because Müller refused to take the step recommended
by Weber, and Whitney himself was in no way willing to let himself be mellowed
down.௘123 To add to this failure, there was an “unfortunate” calendar: just as, in private,
“peace pipes were being lit”, the 4th volume of the Chips from a German Workshop was
published, which still held numerous attacks against Weber and Whitney.௘124 The highly
improbable peace between Whitney and Müller never happened, and the reconciliation
between Weber and Müller was pushed off for a good number of years – at least this is
what the long interruption of their correspondence seems to imply, since the next letter
was dated 1896. There remains to quote the content of this letter, which repeated the
written recommendation from Weber and other members of the Science Academy in
Berlin, in favour of electing Müller as a foreign correspondent:

In the domain of the comparative science of language, thanks to his many works
[Müller] has made its results accessible to large circles of an erudite, cultured
public. In this way, he has given England great claims to fame. He has notably

120 Ibid., Bl. 144–147, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, February 2, 1876).
121 Ibid., Bl. 59–63, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, August 26, 1872).
122 StaBi 2b 1869 (20), Müller, Frederik Max, Weber to Müller (January 12, 1877).
123 StaBi 2b 1854 (18), Bl. 180, W. D. Whitney, Whitney to Weber (February 12, 1877).
124 StaBi 2b 1869 (20), Müller, Frederik Max, Weber to Müller (March 21, 1877).

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A Source for Science 169

accomplished independent, quality work in the naturalist branch of compara-

tive mythology – even though, naturally, the results he has obtained on such
an uncertain ¿eld are questionable in many regards. Thirdly, we should men-
tion his very meritorious efforts – especially in England – to take on again the
clari¿cation of the history of religions and the philosophy of religions. This he
has worked on either independently or as a representative of German science,
aware of its acquired results.௘125

Those signing formally, albeit low-key, recorded the monumental work accomplished
by Müller. His works in the domain of comparative grammar were, in the end, brought
down to their popularisation aspect, and the authors took their distances from his re-
sults in comparative mythology, which were deemed too hazardous. This letter showed
an obvious will: that of preventing Müller’s work to be wholly identi¿ed with the
‘German science’. Although, admittedly, he passed it on in Great Britain, his works
distanced him from it in many aspects.
For his part, Müller was aware of his ambiguous situation; several times, he en-
deavoured to explain to the German public the British viewpoint on political issues,
and he even acquired British nationality.௘126 He nevertheless went on claiming his Ger-
man identity and proclaimed: “though I had spent nearly a whole life in the service
of my adopted country, […] still I was, and have always remained, a German”௘127 – an
acknowledgement which he understood both emotionally and scienti¿cally. Such ten-
sions around the claim of a national label were inevitable in an emigration context: the
scholar gone abroad could but feel as the legitimate representative of his homeland
while his former fellow-countrymen rather tended to measure the distance that hence-
forth separated him from them.
What more precisely bothered the Indologists who had remained in Germany –
along with Whitney, since he identi¿ed with them – was something else: in adopting
the British exercise of lectures, Müller passed on to the larger audiences scienti¿c
contents about which these Indologists did not necessarily agree, at the same time as
he was referring to the reputation of the rigour of German science in order to assert his
own scienti¿c legitimacy. In his lecture on the general history of religions, for instance,
Roth thus attacked the approximate use made of the term “Aryan”:

The name “Aryans” is incorrect when it is applied to Indo-Germanic peoples.

[…] Indians and Iranians call themselves “Aryans” in the most ancient and
recent archives of their literature; it is to them an honorary name they give

125 Ibid., Weber to Müller (November 20, 1896).

126 J. H. Voigt, Max Müller, the Man and His Ideas, 2nd rev. and enl. ed. Calcutta 1981, p. 61 s.
127 Quoted in ibid., p. 66.
128 UBT Roth, Rudolf, v., Mh II 149a.

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170 II. The Hegemony of Comparativism

The disagreement could also concern Müller’s adhering to one speci¿c German
school rather than another one. Whitney’s relentlessness towards him came from the
fact that both defended opposed conceptions of language. Whitney thought that Mül-
ler was too close to the theses championed by the “organicist” school of language
as promoted by Schleicher. Schleicher’s school considered that language developed
in the same fashion as living beings, from birth to decline via a maturity phase, and
that it should be studied on the model of the sciences of nature.௘129 On the other hand,
Whitney was convinced that it did not have an autonomous development and only
resulted from the activity of conscious thought. While Germany had gained eternal
glory thanks to the development of comparative grammar, the organicist school was
taking it towards an erroneous conception of language,௘130 and in spreading this type of
interpretation, Müller was detrimental to German science in particular (and linguistic
science in general).
Placing the principles of comparative grammar at the service of a science of Indian
antiquity, Indologists achieved an original, effective, methodological synthesis, even
more so since comparativism was not only envisaged as a linguistic tool (etymology
and root comparison) but as a true paradigm applicable to cultural domains. This
way, such problems as the question of origins could be taken up and renewed. In this
process, historicism played a very important part. From it, the Indologists born in the
1820s – who were the century’s major ¿gures of their discipline in Germany – had
inherited, as the Romantics had before them, the notion of a speci¿c development of
each nation. Therefore, to them the history of mankind could not be complete if it
did not include India. However, counter to the Romantics, they also borrowed from
historicism the idea that in most cases (since development varied with the peoples)
the history of humanity did not go in the direction of decline. Since their generation
followed immediately after that of Romanticism, their thinking had its contradictions:
even though they strongly denied it, they still could not get rid of the idea of a decline
in relation to an initial golden age. What is certain is that the comparative tool and the
discovery of such documents as the Vedas convinced them that they had left the ¿eld
of chimerical representations and were only working on tangible data.
In accepting to conceive history as a progressive construction, they re-appropriated
the theme of religion, envisaged from the rationalistic perspective that had been pro-
moted by the historical critiques of the Bible. It was no longer a matter of ¿nding a
sudden original Revelation, but of seeking, in the Indian corpus, traces of the way it
had gradually taken place in history. Drawing strength from their comparative meth-
ods, they even claimed that they could correct and complete the historical, rationalistic
movement, since they deemed that the history of religions had remained anti-historical
so long as it had excluded India from its ¿eld of investigations. Most of them were
rooted in liberal Protestantism, so they were convinced that their research had to be

129 StaBi 2b 1854 (18), W. D. Whitney Bl. 18–21, Whitney to Weber (August 11, 1867).
130 Ibid., Bl. 59–63, Whitney to Weber (February 26, 1872).

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A Source for Science 171

led independently from dogma, while they should not, even could not go against the
religious feeling.
The historical ambition of Indologists sure of the comparative method gave their
discipline a considerable scale, because it became the source of new disciplines, hold-
ing vast questionings within them. Such an extension of its perspectives made German
Indology confronted to new challenges. All Indologists had worked from the identi¿-
cation – more or less explicit, depending on the authors – of linguistic and intellectual
kinship. Inasmuch as the comparative study based on the Vedas always led either to the
borders of a development phase supposedly common to Indo-European peoples, or to
this phase itself, the notion of “kinship” acquired an anthropological dimension. It was
embodied in the alleged existence of an “original Indo-Germanic people”. After de-
limitating the notion of “Aryan”, showing that is was a laudatory name self-attributed
by speakers of the Avestic and Vedic languages, Roth gave the following de¿nition of
Iranians and Indians: “the most important peoples [Asian, also including the “Sem-
ites” and “Northern-Asian peoples”] of the circle are the Indians and Iranians. Many
peoples received their culture from them, they belong to the Indo-Germanic lineage,
they are the brothers of Europeans.”௘131 The approach that consisted in emphasising the
kinship between Indians and Europeans had represented an effort in order to broaden
the historical perspective. However, insisting so much on this exclusive link there was
a great risk of lapsing into particularism, and above all entering into considerations
of hierarchy. The de¿nition of existing links between thought, language and people
became an area of crucial issues: what was at stake was the credibility of German sci-
ence, and the future of an enterprise that still meant to be humanistic.

131 UBT Roth, Rudolf v., Mh II 149a.

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The very interesting results of general ethnology […]

have showed us that, in what we can refer to as the
heritage of Indo-Germanic origins, we must make a
careful distinction between two strata. First, there is
an earlier stratum of primitive representations: widely
spread throughout the earth in a surprisingly identical
fashion, it should be considered as common to all of
humanity. Then overlaying it, there is a stratum more
recently formed, which speci¿cally belongs to the
Leopold von Schröder, Über die Entwicklung der
Indologie in Europa und ihre Beziehung
zur Allgemeinen Völkerkunde, 1895.௘1

Within the space of three generations, Indology entered most German universities and
knowledge advanced in such varied branches as Vedic syntax, ancient Indian law, epic
literature, classical poetry and epigraphy. At the threshold of the 1870s, Vedic studies
had come to maturity, along with the cultural comparativism they had given rise to.
After Germany’s victory in its war against France and the advent of the William I’s
Reich, it became crucial to ¿nd the foundations on which to secure the national unity
achieved under the aegis of Prussia, on a long-term basis. In such a context, compara-
tivism could leave no one unconcerned.
Until then, the “anthropological” interest of Indologists had consisted in curiosity
towards the routes taken by the development of the human mind. This resulted in an
“ethnographic” approach that consisted in gathering all traces of its activity. The corre-
spondence between language and people was approached from the perspective of what
language and its creations revealed about the spirit of the people who spoke it. In the
background of these considerations, the notion that linguistic kinship betrayed a com-
mon ethnic origin had already surfaced in the search for a common language and past.
Indo-European comparativism was gradually more clearly invested with a quest for
identity. In the context of the newly founded Reich, this caused its paradigms – the cor-
respondence between kinship of language and kinship of people as well as the notion

1 L. von Schröder, Über die Entwicklung der Indologie in Europa und ihre Beziehung zur Allge-
meinen Völkerkunde. Antrittsvorlesung von Dr L. von Schröder, a. O. Professor an der Universi-
tät Innsbruck, Mittheilungen der anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien, vol. 25, Vienna 1895,
p. 4.

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174 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

of an “Indo-Germanic” people – to penetrate new scienti¿c milieus. Faced with this

appropriation of the paradigms they had contributed to creating, Indologists were more
than ever prompted to consider the place of comparativism. This was a major challenge
for them. On the one hand, they had to make sure that “Indo-Germanic” comparativ-
ism would not continually dilute the languages and cultures of India within a larger
ensemble, thus neglecting their intrinsic interest. On the other hand, they had to ensure
that this comparativism would not function as a yoke and reduce the investigation on
the history of the human mind to nationalist issues of identity.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes

of Indo-European Comparativism
From the common origin of languages, people have
been wanting to draw certain conclusions as to the ori-
gin of nations and the nature of their beliefs. I want to
oppose these excessive tendencies, and limit to philol-
ogy [sic] its fair share in ethnography, or the science
of peoples, reserving for the other branches of human
knowledge what they can legitimately claim.
Jules Oppert, Ouverture du Cours de philologie
comparée des langues indo-européennes, 1865௘1

The Promotion of the Indo-European Notion

at the Time of German National Unity

In Search of the Past of the German Nation

The advent of the Empire of William I and the achievement of German unity under
the aegis of Prussia did not go without affecting higher education. Following the ter-
ritorial annexations in the successive wars of 1866 and 1870–1871, Prussia hence-
forth owned most German universities: to Berlin, Breslau, Bonn, Halle, Königsberg
and Greifswald were added Kiel, Göttingen and Marburg. Furthermore, despite the
federal structure of the Empire, the academic policy led by Prussia had signi¿cant
repercussions on the universities of other states. This was notably due to the prestige
of its own universities and to its efforts to coordinate the academic policy throughout
Germany.௘2 From the very start of the Empire foundation, Bismarck launched into a
very aggressive policy towards the Catholics, whom he considered as a threat to the
Protestant imperial government and as dangerous supporters of Großdeutsche Lö-
sung – a German national unity that would include the extremely Catholic Austria-
Hungary. The Bismarck anti-Catholic policy, known as Kulturkampf, led to such mea-
sures as controlling what Catholic priests said and forbidding the Jesuits. Under the
aegis of the new minister of Education, Adalbert Falk, there was an effort towards

1 J. Oppert, Ouverture du Cours de Philologie comparée des langues indo-européennes à la Biblio-

thèque impériale le 29 décembre 1864, an excerpt from the Moniteur universel, January 16, 1865,
Paris 1865, p. 3.
2 McClelland, p. 233–234.

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176 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

the separation of Church and State, the latter becoming the only authority allowed to
organise schools.
Combined with the wave of nationalism brought about by the war against France
and the foundation of the Reich, this atmosphere of secularisation and anticlericalism
resulted in increasing interest for the (secular) history of the German people and its
language. This reinforced the feeling of irreducible opposition between the Germanic
world and a Roman world supposedly characterised by antinationalism, elitism and
ultramontanism. There was strong enthusiasm for resurrecting a past that was prior to
Roman invasions and the division of the Germanic world between Germania romana
and Germania libera. This can be seen in the favourable reception, within academic
milieus, of the prehistoric archaeological works undertaken by the amateur societies
that had been created since the beginning of the 19th century. German philology was
not to be outdone in this movement to re-appropriate the German past. For instance,
in his Deutsche Alterthumskunde (Science of German Antiquity) published in ¿ve vol-
umes between 1870 and 1890, the specialist of German philology Karl Müllenhoff used
written sources to go as far back as possible in the history of Germans. He also searched
Greek archives to ¿nd traces of contacts between the Greeks and the German people.
This restoration of the very ancient past, which was an important element in the process
of assertion of the German national identity, was the sign of a change in perspective:
henceforth, not only was the barbaric, pagan epoch of German history accepted – that
of the Goths and the German tribes – but it acquired a positive value.௘3 The expansion
of German philology was encouraged by the emergence of historical German linguis-
tics, decisively spurred by Grimm’s works. After dif¿cult beginnings (fairly few hours,
lectures given for the most part by professors who were only trained in classical philol-
ogy), the number of chairs devoted to this discipline noticeably grew as of the middle
of the century. Furthermore, the history of the German language became a compulsory
test at the examination to teach in the higher classes of Gymnasien.௘4
Specialists in German philology put forward the idea of a German culture (deutsche
Bildung). However, there was a growingly blatant discrepancy between the nationalis-
tic implication they attributed to the term Bildung and the universalist connotation of
this word in the eyes of neo-humanists.௘5 During the Empire, there was a widening gap
between the neo-humanistic ideal of individuals who enjoyed complete, well-balanced
training, and the teaching situation in German universities. This was partly due to the
considerable increase of the total number of students in the various German states
(14.000 in 1870; 61.000 in 1914). For the most part, they belonged to the wealthy bour-
geoisie (Besitzbürgertum) that had developed with the industrialisation of Germany,௘6
while until then universities had mainly been attended by the erudite bourgeoisie

3 Marchand, p. 159–162.
4 I. Sengupta, State, University and Indology, p. 288.
5 W. Voßkamp, Bildung als Synthese, in: J. Fohrmann/W. Voßkamp (ed.), Wissenschaftsgeschichte
der Germanistik im 19. Jahrundert, Stuttgart/Weimar 1994, p. 22–23.
6 McClelland, p. 239 s.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 177

(Bildungsbürgertum) and the nobility. As a result of this sociological change, when it

came to choosing a course, the neo-humanist objective – acquiring a general culture
for its own sake – gave more and more way to pragmatic considerations. Thereafter,
in the face of the exponential increase of various ¿elds of knowledge, the trend was
to specialise.௘7 Neo-humanistic reforms had maintained a form of social elitism by
promoting erudition and knowledge for its own sake, along with the development of
individuals. However, the transformation of the university into a kind of science factory,
a place of Großwissenschaft,௘8 left individual personalities aside, seeking to replace
dilettantism by precise, technical knowledge based on the positivist norms dictated
by the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften). Even though classical philologists re-
acted by striving to retain their position, “bread-and-butter studies” (Brotstudium) gen-
erated keen interest. The development of German philology fell within this context,
since the introduction of classes on the history of the German language in the Gymna-
sien enabled this discipline to offer professional prospects. Yet its main driving force
remained nationalistic.௘9 A sign of its growing dissociation from classical culture was
that it was no longer the Latin and Greek teachers who taught the history of the Ger-
man language in high school, but specialists who approached it from the perspective
of Indo-European comparativism.

The Policy of the State in Favour of Comparative Grammar

Specialists of German philology and ministerial authorities in charge of education
thus took an interest to the comparative method, and this certainly affected Indology
in Germany. In the 1870s, the Roth, Weber and Kuhn generation was still occupy-
ing important academic posts. Nevertheless, this period also marked the end of their
career for the Indologists of the preceding generation – those who had presided over
the institutionalising of their discipline: Bopp died in 1867 and Lassen in 1876, after
being severely handicapped by quasi-blindness for a few years. It was a time of at
least partial replacement of the personnel in this discipline, and throughout most Ger-
man states, especially in Prussia, political authorities intervened more and more in the
process of appointing professors. Having ceased to be small-size “family” universities
with mainly local recruitment (of both students and teachers), universities could only
cover a limited part of their own ¿nancial needs, and the State growingly contributed to
academic budgets. Moreover, as a result of a ¿ght against corporatism which had taken
place throughout the century, the recruiting faculty henceforth had to choose three
candidates and classify them according to criteria that were supposed to be explicit.

7 K. H. Jarausch, Universität und Hochschule, in: C. Berg (ed.), Handbuch der deutschen Bildungs-
geschichte, vol. 4: 1870–1918. Von der Reichsgründung bis zum Ende des Ersten Weltkriegs,
Munich 1991, p. 329–332.
8 Quoted in Marchand, p. 75. The term was coined by Theodor Mommsen, derived from Groß-
industrie (big industry).
9 During the “Berliner Schulkonferenz” organised in 1890, William II declared that he wanted to
train young Germans, not young Greeks or Romans. (Marchand, p. 136).

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178 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

They then passed the list on to the Ministry, which was mandated to take the decision.௘10
In the early 19th century, in a given university a student could become Privatdozent
and work his way up until he obtained his Ordinariat; with the new recruiting system,
candidates were no longer chosen according to geographical criteria, but depending
on their competencies and their scienti¿c and pedagogical reputation.
Starting in 1882, when the jurist Friedrich Theodor Althoff was appointed to the
Ministry of Education, in charge of staff questions, the weight of the State in nomina-
tion procedures became more pronounced. As soon as he arrived at the ministry, this
true “Bismarck of higher education” (who was in his post for almost twenty ¿ve years)
used an authoritarian style and wove a dense network of relations in academic milieus.
This enabled him to be well-informed as to the reputation of everyone, and to settle
situations individually. The consequence of this interventionism, which has gone down
in history as the “Althoff system” (System Althoff), was that he managed to put in place
the candidates he wanted to favour, even against the advice of the faculty concerned.
For that matter, teachers did not hesitate to ask him for his direct support in order to
obtain the position they coveted. This approach was encouraged by Althoff, who saw
in it an appreciable tool of control.௘11

From Kiel to Breslau, the Transformations

of the Chairs of Indology in the 1870s
Undeniably, there was a policy promoting comparative grammar in the last third of
the century. The case of the Breslau is interesting in that it shows that the policy of
the Prussian government was tailored to the interests expressed by the students. As of
the ¿rst half of the century, in all the universities that offered Sanskrit classes there
had been a general tendency amongst students to attend the beginners’ classes in order
to know the grammatical and lexical rudiments of the language, but to give up the
higher levels, when Sanskrit writings were approached. In Breslau, this trend de¿nitely
strengthened in the 1870s, as was highlighted in the retrospective analysis put forward
by the Indologist Alfred Hillebrandt in 1911.௘12 It was there that A. Fr. Stenzler, a for-
mer student of Bopp and A. W. Schlegel, had obtained an Extraordinariat (1833) and
an Ordinariat (1845) in Oriental languages, a post that he took advantage of to grant
Sanskrit a growing role in his teaching. Starting in 1854, he added lessons in “Sanskrit
morphology compared to Gothic morphology” (Formenlehre des Sanskrit verglichen
mit dem Gotischen), which attracted ¿ve students. When it became a private class on

10 In Prussia, a Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten (Ministry of

clerical, school and medical affairs) had been created in 1817. As a matter of fact, this Berufung
(recruiting) procedure existed since the early 19th century, but was rarely observed.
11 Baumgarten, p. 187 s.; Mangold, p. 227; B. vom Brocke, Hochschul- und Wissenschaftspolitik
in Preußen und im Deutschen Reich 1882–1907: das “System Althoff”, in: P. Baumgart (ed.),
Bildungspolitik in Preußen zur Zeit des Kaiserreichs, Stuttgart 1980, p. 9–118.
12 A. Hillebrandt, Sanskrit und vergleichende Sprachforschung, in: G. Kaufmann (ed.), Festschrift
zur Feier des hundertjähringen Bestehens der Universität Breslau, 1st part: Geschichte der Uni-
versität Breslau 1811–1911, Breslau 1911, p. 369–374.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 179

“comparative grammar of Indo-Germanic languages” (vergleichende Grammatik der

indogermanischen Sprachen), it enjoyed increasing success and went from four stu-
dents in 1854–1855 to thirty-seven in 1871–1872, and forty-¿ve in 1875. Commenting
on this evolution, Hillebrandt observed that “Sanskrit had gradually detached itself
from other Oriental languages and contracted its natural alliance with Indo-Germanic
linguistics” at a time when “with everybody’s approval, Sanskrit appeared as the repre-
sentative of linguistic comparativism.”௘13 When he himself acceded to the Extraordina-
riat in 1882, he was entrusted with teaching both Sanskrit and comparative grammar,
a double task that was recorded in the title of his position (Sanskrit und vergleichende
At that time, he was not an isolated case. Previously, both disciplines had often
been coupled, yet both were not necessarily mentioned in the designation of the chairs.
Often, the chair was entitled “Sanskrit” or “Indian Literature”, and the professors
dispensing these classes simply introduced comparative grammar de facto; otherwise
there was a chair speci¿cally devoted to comparative grammar. Both disciplines be-
came systematically associated in the 1870s. This was also the case at Kiel University.
In 1874, the philosophy faculty solicited a speci¿c chair of “Sanskrit and Compara-
tive Grammar” (Sanskrit und vergleichende Grammatik) from the ministry, because
it only offered occasional Sanskrit classes, held by the holder of the chair in Oriental
languages at his pleasure:
On the list of courses offered by the faculty of philosophy in our university,
there is a dearth of courses in Aryan [i. e. Indian and Iranian] languages and
comparative grammar. Formerly, our teachers in Oriental philology sometimes
taught Sanskrit grammar and explained easy texts in Sanskrit. Yet they experi-
ence more and more dif¿culty in reconciling their Semitic studies with Aryan
studies. Furthermore, because of the yearly expansion of science, our present
professor in Oriental languages has to limit himself to the sphere which is of-
¿cially allocated to him, that of Semitic languages. […] Furthermore, since
comparative grammar is naturally connected with Sanskrit studies, this major
discipline is no longer represented at our university. At present, Kiel University
is certainly the only one in Prussia to experience such a shortage. In the chain
of philological studies, we lack an essential link.௘14
The chair requested by the faculty of philosophy was granted by the ministry in 1875.
At the head of the list of candidates that the faculty of philosophy put forward to the
ministry there was Berthold Delbrück, from Iena, an Ordinarius in Sanskrit and com-
parative grammar with a strong specialisation in linguistic studies. This choice got
the consent of the ministry, yet Delbrück declined. In the end, Richard Pischel, the
third on the list, was appointed. He came from Breslau where he was Privatdozent in

13 Ibid., p. 371
14 K. Jordan/E. Hofmann (ed.), Geschichte der Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel 1665–1965,
vol. 5: Die Philosophische Fakultät, 2nd part, Neumünster 1969, p. 236.

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180 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

Sanskrit and comparative grammar – this twofold competence was the reason for his
acceptance by the faculty of philosophy in Kiel. He thus became the ¿rst Extraordi-
narius of Sanskrit and Comparative Grammar at this faculty, on the 18th of October,
1875, a position which became an Ordinariat as early as 1877. However, he preferred
to devote his teachings to Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali as well as the language and mores
of the Gypsies. He was therefore very pleased when they appointed a Privatdozent
in comparative grammar, in the person of Hermann Möller. Con¿rming the tenden-
cies indicated above, Möller was mainly interested in Germanic languages, and his
classes attracted a sizeable number of students, but he was called to the University
of Copenhagen and he left for Denmark in 1883. Sanskrit and comparative grammar
thus remained coupled in Pischel’s Ordinariat. When in 1885 the latter was called
to the University of Halle and a replacement had to be found, the faculty of philoso-
phy in Kiel retained the same selection criterion: “Given the special situation of Kiel
University, the faculty believes that the only scholars to be put forward on the list
should be specialists in Sanskrit studies who, in parallel, have always taught classes
in the comparative science of language.”௘15 The post was attributed to Hermann Ja-
cobi, who had been Extraordinarius in Sanskrit and comparative grammar in Münster
since 1876.
In the 1870s and 1880s almost all universities offered courses in comparative gram-
mar; other than those mentioned above, Ordinarien positions (in comparative grammar,
either alone or associated with Sanskrit) were established in Göttingen, Heidelberg,
Iena, Munich, Münster and Würzburg, while that of Berlin, which had ended with the
death of Bopp, was recreated in 1872, following strong demand from students.௘16

German Indologists Faced with the Rise of “Aryanist” Theories

The “Bildungsbürgertum” and Bismarck’s Policy

Like a large majority of their colleagues, especially in other branches of philology,
Indologists were mainly recruited within the Bildungsbürgertum, a category that was
politically close to the national-liberal party (National-liberale Partei). Ever since the
pre-revolutionary Vormärz period, they showed strong interest in a national idea; initi-
ating the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, which gathered together Oriental-
ists from all the German states, was perceived as an expression of the collective effort
to bring a German nationhood to the surface.௘17 Throughout the decades, the national
fervour remained. Most professors regarded with favour the launching of the 1870
war with France and the ensuing national uni¿cation. Rudolf Roth, for instance, took
part in the liberal euphoria for the Europe of the peoples that seemed to be emerging,
granting that language was the expression of a nation.௘18 In 1871 his enthusiasm for the

15 Ibid., p. 238.
16 As regards the universities of Bonn and Berlin, see I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 93–99.
17 Mangold, p. 189 s.
18 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 82.

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achievement of German unity was such that he spared no effort to vaunt the merits of
the new Germany.௘19
A. Weber positively welcomed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, as can be seen
from the letters he received from William Dwight Whitney. Indeed, the American San-
skritist’s statements in favour of German patriotism were done with a tone of complicity
that leads one to think that Weber held the same discourse as his correspondent. In a let-
ter dated October 1870,௘20 Whitney thanked his former student for having sent him Emil
Du Bois-Reymond’s lecture “On the German War”, in which the Berlin physiologist
sounded quite anti-French. Whitney assured that he had read it “with great satisfaction
and hearty assent”. In the same letter, although he hardly admired the King of Prussia
and Bismarck, he asked Weber his opinion on the consequences that the war could have
on “German unity and liberty”. Indeed, despite his unconditional support of Germany,
Whitney experienced growing concern as to the authoritarianism of William I and Bis-
marck – a feeling he was to give freer rein to once the war was over.௘21 Certainly, Weber
himself could only feel grieved by the war,௘22 not only because many of his students had
had to leave for the front – Whitney pictured them writing to their Berlin master “reports
from French battle¿elds in Sanskrit”௘23 – but also because the salaries of civil servants
were strongly affected by the war effort.௘24 Nevertheless, Weber’s loyalty to Bismarck
and his trust in the future of German unity showed through in the manner in which
he strove to reassure his American correspondent, demonstrating that the hegemonic
position of Prussia within the new Reich, would not impair the people’s freedom.௘25
Weber’s views can be con¿rmed by other letters, addressed to him by Michel Bréal.
Bréal was appointed as a lecturer in comparative philology at the Collège de France in
1864, a position that became a chair in 1866.௘26 Born in Landau, in the Palatinate, into a
family of German-speaking Alsace Jews, Bréal was brought up in Alsace and pursued
his studies at the Ecole normale supérieure and the Sorbonne in Paris. He stayed in
Berlin between 1857 and 1859, where he attended Bopp’s and Weber’s classes and as-
sociated with Adalbert Kuhn. Upon his return, he defended a doctorate thesis in 1863,
before obtaining his post at the Collège de France. As he held the German university
system in high esteem and showed just as much admiration for Bopp’s comparative
grammar, he made sure to import these scienti¿c practices into France.௘27

19 R. Garbe, p. 553.
20 StaBi 2b 1854 (18), W. D. Whitney, Bl. 41–44, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, October 1870).
21 Ibid., Bl. 49–51, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, February 12, 1871).
22 Ibid., Bl. 52–53, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, March 13, 1871).
23 Ibid., Bl. 41–44, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, October, 1870).
24 Ibid., Bl. 59–63, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, February 26, 1872).
25 Ibid.
26 These letters have been analysed and published in “Wissenschaft im Krieg. Michel Bréal und der
Indologe Albrecht Weber”, by P. Rabault-Feuerhahn, in: H. W. Giessen/H. H. Lüger/G. Volz (ed.),
Michel Bréal, Grenzüberschreitende Signaturen, Landau 2007, p. 43–76.
27 Michael Werner, A propos des voyages de philologues français en Allemagne avant 1870: le cas
de Gaston Paris et de Michel Bréal, in: M. Parisse (ed.), Les échanges universitaires franco-alle-

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182 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

This attachment to Germany in general and German science in particular explains

why he kept on corresponding with Weber for many years. However, of this correspon-
dence the only remaining letters are from 1866–1870, the period between the two wars
led by Prussia. At the time of the Prussian annexations of 1866, Bréal limited himself to
conveying his wish that Prussia would take advantage of its new greatness to promote
a more active scienti¿c policy. He also expressed his concern as regards the Prussian
policy towards the smaller states.௘28 He had adopted the attitude of the well-informed
observer, his acquaintance with the foreigner providing him a perspective that his fel-
low citizens lacked, and he had complained to Weber that the French had not woken
up to the new role played by Prussia.௘29
In 1870, his letters reÀected a totally different state of mind. Henceforth, he fully
placed himself in the French perspective. He had to take refuge in Liège in September
1870, wherefrom he went on corresponding with Weber, who expressed his solidarity
about his sad situation. From Germany, Weber sent the books that Bréal had not been
able to take along when he Àed or those that he could not get a hold of. Yet both schol-
ars gradually tensed up and stiffened their respective positions. Each of them accused
the neighbouring country of being so intransigent that the conÀict was unsolvable.௘30 A
letter dated November 1870 reveals the rift that henceforth separated both correspon-
dents, from a political stance.௘31 Broaching a question that Weber had asked him to
answer “in all conscience”, Bréal developed a detailed argumentation to demonstrate
that France would never have imposed upon Germany such harsh peace conditions as
those Prussia was imposing on France. In another passage, denying the rumour that
Jules Mohl – the Orientalist from Württemberg who had resigned from his professor
post in Tübingen in order to pursue his career in Paris – had been expelled from France,
he took the opportunity to add:
That Mohl was expelled is just as untrue as the fact that some French of¿cers
cannot write. There are, therefore, many things that would require to be put
right. For instance, I do not see why the presence of six Sanskritists in the Prus-
sian army should be a guarantee that the Library of Paris will not be destroyed
by Prussian bombs (as the one in Strasbourg has been). That Mohl is designated
as a Napoleonic agent seems just as extraordinary. […] or maybe you also have
your espions français (French spies)?௘32
This scathing tone gives a suf¿cient glimpse of the aggravation of the tensions between
both scholars. Aware of this widening gap, Bréal declared that he no longer wanted to

mands du Moyen Age au XXe siècle, Paris 1991, p. 144–145. Gabriel Bergounioux, Aux origines
de la linguistique française, Paris 1994, p. 127–128.
28 StaBi Sig Darmst 2b 1863 (22) Bréal, Bl. 19–20, Bréal to Weber (Paris, October 17, 1866); ibid.,
Bl. 21–22, Bréal to Weber (Paris, March 27, 1867).
29 Ibid., Bl. 19–20.
30 Ibid., Bl. 29–30 and 31–32, Bréal to Weber (Liège, September 25, 1870 and October 9, 1870).
31 Ibid., Bl. 33–35, Bréal to Weber (Liège, November 1, 1870).
32 Ibid., Bl. 33–35 (French in the text).

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broach political issues in a letter he wrote in December, which was to be the next to
last that he sent to his Berlin colleague and friend.௘33 Their correspondence thus ended
with a letter dated 10th January 1871, in which Bréal responded to Weber’s reproaches
for not returning the various books he had sent him from Berlin; he explained that he
had mailed them three days earlier and said he was surprised that Weber was asking for
them after saying that Bréal could keep them as long as he wished. Even though there
was no open dispute, their correspondence thus ended up on a negative note, signalling
the end of a scienti¿c cooperation in which the exchange of books played an important
part, both from a practical and symbolic stance.
In the context of the war, scholars were no exception to the prevailing chauvinism.
Weber’s loyalty towards Bismarck can be understood in so far as until the late 1870s,
the chancellor’s policy, admittedly reactionary, was nevertheless resolutely liberal.
It aimed at rallying the members of the national-liberal party – which Weber was a
member of – to the enterprise of national uni¿cation. This was to change as of 1879
when, following a serious economic crisis and two assassination attempts against the
Kaiser in the spring of 1878, liberalism was relinquished as far as economy and interior
politics were concerned. As early as 1879, Bismarck put an end to the Kulturkampf
and moved closer to both the members of the conservative party (Deutschkonservative
Partei, long hostile to German unity), and the Catholics of the central party (Zentrum).
As for the national-liberal party, most of its members agreed to follow the new po-
litical line adopted by Bismarck. The failed assassination attempts against William I
were, at ¿rst, an opportunity to designate the socialists as responsible, before the Jews
paid the price for the new political context and started to be accused of the evils in
the Empire. In November 1879, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke published an
article entitled “Unsere Aussichten” (“Our Perspectives”), in which he voiced these
anti-Semitic opinions. He thus triggered off a ¿erce quarrel,௘34 because many Berlin
notables united to oppose this offensive attack. In this war that raged until 1881, they
notably published a manifesto against anti-Semitism, in 1880, under the leadership
of Theodor Mommsen. Weber joined these discordant voices that were making them-
selves heard amidst the national-liberal party, which for the most part remained faithful
to Bismarck. This increasingly reticent attitude towards Bismarck can be detected in
what Whitney wrote in a letter dated February 17, 1889. Using a tone of complicity,
he noted that from what Weber intimated, German politics were in no better state than
American politics. “You, on the other hand, we see, are suffering with snow and cold –
as well as with Bismarck and Boulanger and other things.”௘35 As a matter of fact, Weber
had not waited until the end of the 1880s to distance himself from the prevailing cur-
rents of Prussian interior politics. On the 12th of January, 1881, notably in reaction to
the “Anti-Semitic Petition” launched throughout the Reich, which Berlin students had
massively signed, he publicly took a stand against anti-Semites, taking advantage of a

33 Ibid., Bl. 37–38, Bréal to Weber (Liège, December 27, 1870).

34 W. Boehlich (ed.), Der Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, Frankfurt am Main 1988.
35 StaBi, 2b 1854 (18), Bl. 249, Whitney to Weber (New Haven, February 17, 1889).

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184 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

meeting of the Electoral College to bring to mind the positive cultural inÀuence of the
Jews in Germany. He also signed the counter-petition written in reaction to the anti-
Semitic one, and joined the Association for the battle against anti-Semitism (Verein
zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus).௘36

The “Indo-Germanic People”, an Epistemological Drift

Indologists adhered to national uni¿cation, even under the aegis of Prussia, yet they
did not necessarily lapse into conservatism, xenophobia or political anti-Semitism. As
a rule, the liberal views already expressed in their critical approach to religious ortho-
doxy extended to the political area – even though some of them were no exception to
the backdrop of anti-Semitism that prevailed in Germany and many other European
countries. However, the works of Indologists posed a series of problems. German
Indology had managed to ¿nd its own methodological way, by systematically bas-
ing itself on comparativism. However, it must be admitted that in this area, the limits
imposed by caution could quickly be exceeded. From linguistic kinship to intellectual
kinship and then kinship understood from an ethnic viewpoint, the plunge was soon
taken by Indologists themselves, via a series of shifts. The notion of a mother lan-
guage for the “Indo-Germanic” linguistic family should have had no other status than
that of a working hypothesis. By projecting onto it the appellation “Indo-Germanic”,
it was given an identity along with consistency. Moreover, forms reconstructed as
hypotheses were starting to be taken seriously. The materiality thus acquired by the
“Indo-Germanic” language led to envisaging the existence of its speakers. Giving them
the name “Indo-Germans”, based on the name of the language they were supposed to
speak, meant drawing the ethnic contours of a group according to linguistic borders,
while at the same time emphasising its “Germanic” component.௘37 Hardly ten years after
the articles by August Schleicher “On the Value of Comparing Languages” (1846) and
Adalbert Kuhn “On the Most Ancient History of Indo-Germanic Peoples” (1849), the
idea that there was an ancestral people at the origin of the German lineage, that could be
accessible through comparative grammar, had become one of the discipline’s obvious
facts. The methods initiated by Schleicher and Kuhn consisted in using comparative
grammar as one would an archaeological instrument, going back through the various
stages of language until one could reconstitute the remnants of the age-old “Indo-
Germanic” stage. The Swiss Adolphe Pictet, who had been introduced to Sanskrit by
A. W. Schlegel, then adopted these methods and called them “linguistic palaeontology”.
He put forward that “words last as long as bones; and just as a tooth implicitly con-
tains a part of an animal’s history, an isolated word can give a clue as to the series of
ideas that were attached to it when it was formed.”௘38 Coined by Pictet and popularised
through his book on Les Origines indo-européennes ou les Aryens primitifs. Essai de

36 I am indebted to Céline Trautmann-Waller for her indications concerning this commitment of

Albrecht Weber.
37 R. Römer, Sprachwissenschaft und Rassenideologie in Deutschland, Munich 1989, p. 62–84.
38 Olender, p. 131.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 185

paléontologie linguistique (Indo-European Origins of the Primitive Aryas. An Essay

in Linguistic Palaeontology, 1859–1863), this expression illustrates the conceptual
shifts deriving from the circulation of knowledge and methods, and promoted by the
comparison between different approaches and disciplines. In his association of the
terms “palaeontology” and “linguistic”, Pictet showed that analysing a language made
it possible to go back in time just as much as analysing bones. Seeking to justify this
comparison, he established a true analogy between two scienti¿c subjects. He thus
ontologically set up the analogy of scienti¿c methods, which resulted in giving sub-
stance to the notion of language.
The title chosen by Pictet, associating the terms “Indo-Europeans” and “Aryas”,
shows how the misuses of language committed by such Indologists as Lassen and
Müller were spreading within the scienti¿c community. Shaped on the adjective Ɨrya,
to which Indologist attributed varying meanings yet generally linked to an idea of
nobility, the term “Aryan” had ¿rst been used to designate the Sanskrit and Avestic
languages, in which the word Ɨrya was con¿rmed.௘39 Applying this term to the Indians
of Vedic times or the Iranians of the Avestic epoch – or even to the single people they
were supposed to have formed together at an earlier date – came down to identifying
a people on linguistic bases. Lassen and Müller added to the confusion, seeing that
they often used it to name the Indo-European family as a whole, no longer the sole
Indo-Iranian branch.௘40 In Müller’s case, this use was due to both a hasty terminologi-
cal shortcut and a thoughtless rhetorical effect, playing on the Romantic notion of the
Indian origins of European civilisation. On the other hand, Lassen theoretically justi-
¿ed his use of “Aryan” as a synonym for “Indo-Germanic”. Indeed, as early as 1830,
he deemed it inconvenient to use a compound word such as “Indo-Germanic” and
suggested to replace it with a word attested to in various languages of the linguistic
family concerned. For him, this was precisely the case with the designation “Aryan”,
which not only peoples of ancient India and Persia had attached to themselves, but
also the members of a Germanic tribe mentioned by Tacitus. Lastly, “Aryan” had the
advantage of a laudatory connotation, completely in keeping with the positive values
that Lassen ascribed to “Indo-Germans”, both intellectually and physically.௘41 In mak-
ing this expression his own, Pictet must have been aware of its positive load: indeed,
throughout his work, the “primitive Aryas” were shown in a most favourable light.௘42

39 Römer, p. 63, imputed the German form Arier to Kleuker, the translator of Anquetil Duperron’s
40 Bosch, p. 197.
41 Lassen, Über Herrn Professor Bopps, p. 70.
42 It should be speci¿ed that Pictet’s works were unfavourably received in Germany. Weber as well
as Kuhn published harsh articles against Pictet in the Beiträge für vergleichende Sprachforschung
(vol. II, IV). Schleicher and Müller opposed Pictet’s principle that when words designating the
same reality in the various Indo-European languages did not have a common origin, this meant
that this reality did not exist in the joint Indo-European epoch. See O. Schrader, Sprachverglei-
chung und Urgeschichte. Linguistisch-historische Beiträge zur Erforschung des indogermani-
schen Altertums, Iena 1883, p. 28–33.

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186 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

The Issue of the Original Homeland of “Indo-Germans”

Once it was presumed that a single people was at the origin of all of those speaking
Indo-European languages, the issue that more obviously asserted itself concerned its
identity and, correlatively, its geographical implantation. Before comparativists started
to use linguistic comparisons in order to reconstruct the original “Indo-Germanic”
stage, before they thought that they had given tangible reality to the “Indo-Germanic”
people, A. W. Schlegel had anticipated that the existence of such a people would in-
evitably give rise to questioning if it came to be attested to:
Admitting that the af¿liation of languages justi¿es the conclusion (and I am
convinced that it will justify it, even more so when it is examined in depth)
that all these families of peoples stem from the same stock; that, at some time,
their ancestors belonged to a single nation, which then divided and subdivided
in its successive propagation; there naturally comes the problem of knowing
what the primeval seat of this mother nation was.௘43
In this text written in 1842, A. W. Schlegel posed the hypothesis that the kinship of lan-
guages made it possible to conclude that there was a common ethnic origin.௘44 Starting
in the middle of the century, Schleicher’s tree of languages contributed to spreading
the notion that the various Indo-European languages had taken shape by progressively
diverging from a single original one.௘45 Therefore, they had not come about simultane-
ously and had not immediately existed throughout the territory that they or their de-
scendants later populated. Rather, they had acquired an identity of their own during the
time when a single people was scattering away from a limited territory. Consequently,
the question of the “primeval seat of the mother nation” was totally relevant.
This issue had a central place in Pictet’s book, Les Origines indo-européennes. To
him, there was no doubt: Indo-Europeans (or “primitive Aryas”, as he called them)
could only come from Bactria (presently a region in Afghanistan), a fairly central land

43 A. W. Schlegel, De l’origine des Hindous, p. 514.

44 Ibid., p. 459. “Races are recognisable by physiological characteristics that are universal or at least
predominant in a large number of men, and so constant that they are passed on from one genera-
tion to the next; families of peoples are recognisable by the analogy of their languages, which
proves a common origin. A single race can contain several families of peoples, but it is impossible
that the members of the same family belong to different races.”
45 Inspired by Darwin, this diagram was segmental insofar as it implied that each language came
forth from the separation of a former language into two branches, of which it was supposed that
they were no longer in contact after this separation. That this contact phenomenon was not taken
into account was notably criticised by Müller. Another suggestion came from Johannes Schmidt,
who was to become Ordinarius in comparative grammar in Berlin. In 1872, he put forward what
was known as the “Wave Model” or “Wave” theory (Wellentheorie): Indo-European languages
stemmed from as many dialects, which already existed at the origins; (according to him) they took
shape through the progressive complexi¿cation of these dialects and always remained in contact
with one another. It was therefore impossible to retrace their genealogy. The evolutions of the
various languages always spread in a wave-like fashion. Johannes Schmidt was, in turn, harshly
criticised by August Fick, a supporter of Schleicher’s tree structure.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 187

in relation to the territory covered by the most ancient Indo-European languages. The
region’s characteristics seemed to corroborate in every respect the climatic, zoologi-
cal and topographical information on the earliest Indo-European world, as supplied
by linguistic palaeontology.௘46
In asserting that the initial birthplace of Indo-Europeans had to be sought in Bactria,
Picted placed himself in the continuation of numerous theories attributing Asian origins
to European civilisation.௘47 He was also in line with the Indologists who, notably fol-
lowing Lassen, came round to the notion that the Sanskrit-speaking people who were
the bearers of the Vedic civilisation did not stem from the Indian soil but arrived in the
subcontinent from the north-west. There, they came into contact with darker-skinned,
indigenous Dravidian people. A. W. Schlegel and Schleicher, for instance, suggested
locating the cradle of “Indo-Germans” by the Caspian Sea.௘48 Until the end of the
19th century, despite slight variations as to the exact location, the Asian theory was
championed by a majority of Indologists and comparatists. A former student of Weber
and a specialist in Vedic studies, Hermann Brunnhofer exercised his profession as a
Sanskritist in Great Britain and then in Switzerland and Russia.௘49 He devoted most of
his career to establishing – on philological and geographical bases – that Vedic Indi-
ans were nomads originating from a region located somewhere between the Caspian
Sea and the Penjab, a region which he ¿rst thought to be Armenia before he went in
favour of Persia.௘50 However, starting in the middle of the century, discordant voices
were heard, demonstrating that the initial homeland of the supposed Indo-Europeans
should not be sought in Asia but in Europe.
One of the ¿rst promoters of the European theory was Robert Gordon Latham, a
former medicine student who became professor of English language and literature
in University College, London. He continued to cultivate this two-fold competence,
working as both a philologist and an anthropologist. Anthropology was still in its in-
fancy in the mid 19th century, and in English it was often referred to as ethnology. It
was mainly classi¿catory, aiming to delineate the various human groups according to
criteria that varied from one author to the next. Latham was more speci¿cally in the
continuation of the tradition initiated by the physician James Cowles Pritchard. The
founder of the Ethnological Society of London in 1843, Pritchard followed monogenist
and diffusionist presuppositions and used language comparison in order to establish

46 Pictet, p. 119.
47 R. P. Sieferle, Indien und die Arier in der Rassentheorie, in: M. Rehs (ed.), Utopie – Projektion –
Gegenbild. Indien in Deutschland, Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch, 1987/3, p. 444–445. The ¿rst
designation of Central Asia as the original homeland of Indo-Europeans was imputed to J.-G.
Rhode (Die heilige Sage des Zendvolkes, Frankfurt am Main 1820) by Salomon Reinach: S. Re-
inach, L’Origine des Aryens, histoire d’une Controverse, Paris 1892, p. 11.
48 A. W. Schlegel, On the Origin of the Hindus, p. 515. August Schleicher, Die Sprachen Europas in
systematischer Uebersicht, Bonn 1850.
49 Stache-Rosen, p. 91–82.
50 H. Brunnhofer, Iran und Turan, historisch-geographische und ethnologische Untersuchungen über
den ältesten Schauplatz der indischen Urgeschichte, Leipzig 1889.

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188 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

links between groups that were physically dissimilar.௘51 Much inÀuenced by the works
of the Calcutta Sanskritists, Pritchard thought that Adam and Eve were black and that
subsequent changes of colour, notably the white colour of Europeans, could be ex-
plained by the development of civilisation. However, inasmuch as the hypothesis of a
black origin of humanity was very badly received by his contemporaries, he backed
down and agreed to relate that Aboriginals and Sanskrit-speaking Indians did not stem
from the same group. He even made room for the theory of the inÀuence of climate
on skin colour.௘52
As has been demonstrated by George W. Stocking Jr and, in his wake, Thomas
R. Trautmann, Latham’s work is representative of the widening distance between
Pritchardian anthropology and the works of philologists. In the middle of the century,
there was a multiplication of racial theories that no longer envisaged Europeans and
Blacks in a tree- pattern – formed by successive dissociations from a common trunk –
but rather as the extremities on a scale of human civilisation, separated by a series of
discreet races. Despite the close link which had long bound Pritchardian anthropology
and philology, Latham strongly opposed the notion of an “Indo-European” people as
promoted by Müller, because he refused the idea of kinship between the Indians of
the contemporary period and Europeans. He therefore had to demonstrate that the ¿rst
speakers of Sanskrit came from a land very distant from India, and had nothing to do
with the Brahmans who then imported that language to the subcontinent. Basing him-
self on a simple anti-black bias, and the close proximity between Sanskrit and Slavo-
Lithuanian languages, he asserted that “Indo-Europeans” (he excluded contemporary
Indians, just as he considered that none of the modern Indian languages were truly
stemming from Sanskrit) originated from Europe, and more speci¿cally Lithuania.௘53
In making Europeans the descendants of Japheth, son of Noah, the Biblical tradition
had suggested that the origins of Europe were in the region of Mount Ararat, where
Noah’s ark had landed. Bringing the origins of the European civilisation and peoples
back on European soil represented an important change of perspective in relation to
the genealogy put forward in the Bible. De facto, the theory of a European origin of
Indo-European peoples was adopted by an increasing number of scholars, following
discoveries that fundamentally called into question key elements in the Holy Writ-
ings – starting with the Biblical chronology, which dated the early stages of human
history back six thousand years at the most. In 1858, caves were discovered in Brixham,
England, where human tools were found in the same geological strata as skeletons
of animals from extinct species. Basing himself on these ¿nds, the geologist Charles
Lyell published a book in 1863, entitled The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of
Man, which was instrumental in asserting a new chronology of human history, a longer
one that gave rise to the notion of “prehistory”. Since the populating of Europe dated

51 Trautmann, p. 166.
52 G. W. Stocking Jr, Victorian Anthropology, New York/London 1987, p. 46–77; Trautmann, p. 167–
53 Trautmann, p. 178–182; Sieferle, p. 450.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 189

back to a very ancient period, it had not necessarily been preceded by the Asian one,
as Biblical genealogy claimed.
This multiplication of geological and pre-historical works was not the prerogative
of Great-Britain; it also concerned the other European countries. Created by Rudolf
Virchow in 1869, the Berlin Society of Archaeology, Ethnography and Pre-History
(Berliner Gesellschaft für Archäologie, Ethnographie und Urgeschichte) shows proof
of the German interest in these questions. The discovery of pre-history and the emer-
gence of theories favouring Europe certainly undermined existing reference points.
For instance, in a preface of the Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Grundsprache in
ihrem Bestande vor der Völkertrennung (Dictionary of the Original Indo-Germanic
Language before the Separation of Peoples), which he wrote in 1868 at the request
of his former student August Fick, Theodor Benfey was won over to the new theories.
He explained that the recent geological discoveries௘54 fully justi¿ed this new stance – a
conviction that he reiterated in his Natural History of the Science of Language, notably
claiming that it was impossible to reconstruct the names of such oriental animals as
the lion in the original “Indo-Germanic” language. According to him, the absence of
such terms proved that these realities were unknown to the ¿rst “Indo-Germans”, who
therefore most certainly originated in Europe.௘55

Physical Anthropology, a Cumbersome Neighbour

Even though the European theory led to reconsidering the question of the origins of
Indo-Europeans,௘56 it is understandable that, given all the efforts they had had to make in
order to have Indian civilisation acknowledged as important and to introduce at least a
part of Asia in their fellow countrymen’s view of the world and historical perspectives,
most 19th century German Indologists remained faithful to the Asian argument. For
instance, August Fick took advantage of the reissue of his Wörterbuch der indoger-
manischen Grundsprache in 1870–1871 to take the opposing view of the new theories
of his former master, Benfey.௘57 The philologist community was rather reserved when
it came to the European theory, which shook up the discipline’s points of references,
and whose main arguments were based on presuppositions that they did not adhere to.
Indeed, it was especially championed by specialists in pre-historical archaeology and
physical anthropology who were not content with establishing a correlation between

54 Benfey, Vorwort, in: F. Chr. August Fick, Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Grundsprache in
ihrem Bestande vor der Völkertrennung, ein sprachgeschichtlicher Versuch, Göttingen 1868, p. IX.
55 Benfey, Geschichte, p. 599–600.
56 A. Weber, Zur indischen Religionsgeschichte. Eine kursorische Uebersicht, Stuttgart 1899, p. 3.
The issue of the origin of Aryans is still debated today – “Aryans” being understood as speakers
of Indo-Aryan languages; G. Fussmann, Entre fantasmes, science et politique. L’entrée des Ɩryas
en Inde, Annales Histoire, Sciences Sociales 58/4, July-August 2003, p. 781–813.
57 The new edition was entitled Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Grundsprache
vor der Völkertrennung, ein sprachgeschichtlicher Versuch von F. C. August Fick. See Schrader,
p. 133.

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190 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

language and people (which was already a mistake made by philologists themselves),
but also related linguistic traits with physical characters.
Admittedly, the interweaving of the linguistic and anthropological approaches
was not recent. Both these approaches were mainly classi¿catory, which encouraged
their intertwining. The ¿rst one distinguished language families, while the second one
claimed to bring order and clarity amidst human diversity. In order to do this, it identi-
¿ed the relations between peoples and brought them down to a lesser number of larger
entities whose designation was not set and oscillated between “people”, “variety” and
“race”. Both anthropology and linguistics were faced with the same questions, i. e. the
de¿nition of their respective subjects – people (or race) and language, the explanation
of the existence of different races and languages and when and how these respective
entities came into being, as well as the principles at work in their respective changes.௘58
The more speci¿c question of the relation between language and race – understood in
the physical sense – was variously answered from one national scienti¿c tradition to
the next, and even within a national tradition. However, this mainly concerned anthro-
pologists, while philologists and linguists tended to reject the idea of a correspondence
between linguistic and physical characters.௘59 From the moment that linguistic families
were revealed which did not necessarily correspond to physical divisions, this question
imposed itself upon anthropologists. In Great Britain, under the inÀuence of Pritchard’s
anthropology, linguistic criteria had long prevailed in establishing racial classi¿cations.
However, when polygenistic theories gained ground, the classi¿cations established
on the basis of physical criteria came into conÀict with certain kinships defended by
linguists. As can be seen from Latham’s example, scholars chose to primarily trust
anatomical characters such as skin colour, which had the advantage of being the most
obviously immediate.௘60
In France, on the other hand, despite the attention given to language by Cuvier and
Volney in the Society of Observers of Man (Société des observateurs de l’homme) in
the 18th century, a large majority of 19th century scholars considered that linguistic
criteria were not the most reliable way to establish racial classi¿cation. It was rather
physiological considerations that guided these researches as of the foundation of the
Ethnological Society of Paris in 1829. In the 1860s, the physician Paul Broca, founder
of the Society of Anthropology in Paris (1859), determined the language faculty loca-
tion in the brain. To him, this location admittedly showed that language was conveyed
by a natural, unchanging organ. For all that, this acknowledgement did not mean that
as far as languages were concerned, there were less variations according to the politi-
cal or social context. In the continuation of Paul Broca’s works, other scholars sought
to prove that the human character of language made it a result of natural selection.
Abel Hovelacque, among others, therefore concluded that beings “preceding man”

58 N. Dias/B. Rupp-Eisenreich, Linguistique et anthropologie physique, in: Auroux (ed.), Histoire

des idées linguistiques, vol. III, p. 279.
59 Ibid., p. 293.
60 Trautmann, p. 179 s.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 191

had received this faculty in various places, which explained the diversity of human
races – in keeping with the polygenistic hypothesis that Broca had already adopted.
Linguistics thus recovered a place in racial classi¿cations, yet always subordinate to
the physical viewpoint, because French anthropologists remained convinced that the
latter was more permanent.௘61
In Germany, the situation was particularly diversi¿ed. In the ¿rst half of the
19th century, German anthropology had been dominated by the research led by Jo-
hann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor of medicine at Göttingen and a supporter of
monogenism, which had singled out ¿ve main races established by comparing various
empirical data, such as skulls, foetuses, hair, as well as iconographic representations.
In these classi¿cations, language did not play any role, because Blumenbach consid-
ered that, as a creation of man, it pertained to the social domain rather than to nature –
and he limited his research to nature. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, after
his death, German anthropology took various directions. Britta Rupp-Eisenreich has
identi¿ed several currents, respectively represented by Theodor Waitz, a professor of
philosophy at Marburg University, of Herbartian inclination; the physician and anthro-
pologist Rudolf Virchow; the founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt;
and, lastly, the zoologist Ernst Haeckel.
In Haeckel’s work, the relations between linguistics and anthropology had a cen-
tral place. An ardent disciple of Charles Darwin’s theories, which he introduced into
Germany,௘62 he had set himself the goal of discovering the “great law of the progressive
evolution of mankind”. In a monistic perspective, he rejected the metaphysical dualism
that consisted in differentiating spiritual substance and physical matter. This is why,
even though he refused to de¿ne linguistics as a science of nature, he considered that
it was imperative to unite both ¿elds in order to de¿ne the “laws of evolution”.௘63 It was
particularly through the works of Friedrich Müller – who was appointed as Ordinarius
in comparative grammar and Oriental languages in Vienna in 1869 – that Haeckel ac-
quired the conviction that “comparative zoology” and “comparative linguistics” had to
be paralleled. Friedrich Müller had founded what he called “linguistic ethnography”,
which was none other than a classi¿cation system based on the combination of physical
and linguistic criteria. With this system, he was hoping to reconcile the “anthropologi-
cal” perspective, which was interested in man as an individual and only envisaged him
from an anatomical standpoint, and the “ethnological” perspective, which apprehended
man as the member of a people, i. e. a community de¿ned by its “mores”, its “origin”
and its “language”.௘64 There remained to determine which anatomical criterion one
should work on. Friedrich Müller considered that hair was comparatively the most
stable one. This led him to isolate races according to their types of hair, differentiating,

61 Dias/Rupp-Eisenreich, p. 288–292.
62 Applying the theory of natural selection and struggle for existence to the social ¿eld, he was
notably an instigator of Sozial-Darwinismus.
63 Dias/Rupp-Eisenreich, p. 284.
64 Fr. Müller, Allgemeine Ethnographie, Vienna 1873, p. 1–6.

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192 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

within each of them, a series of peoples according to linguistic criteria. Haeckel made
this classi¿cation his, including the hierarchy Müller had put in it: for instance, both of
them presented “fuzzy-haired” people as the lowest ones and multiplied value judge-
ments that earned them many criticisms from their colleagues in Germany.௘65
The place to be reserved for linguistic classi¿cations in establishing racial typolo-
gies varied from one country to the next. However, in France and in Germany – and
later, from the middle of the 19th century onwards in Great Britain – the prevailing
trend was to give priority to physical criteria. In 1859, Darwin’s book On the Origins
of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published and suddenly the former op-
position between polygenism and monogenism became obsolete. Darwin was demon-
strating that the issue of the variability of species was to be apprehended with a clear
conscience of the difference between historical and geological time. What seemed to
be historically stable could have experienced transformations on the scale of geologi-
cal time. This being the case, it became possible to envisage races as set types, in the
manner of polygenists, yet for all that without going back to the notion of plasticity of
the human species, as had been at the core of monogenistic theories.௘66 Consequently,
the question of how races were formed was henceforth at the core of physical anthro-
pology. The discovery that there existed a pre-historical epoch led to thinking that the
Indo-European linguistic family did not date back to the beginnings of human history;
in the chronological span of humanity, it was fairly recent. Hence came the idea that
races must have taken shape before linguistic families. The forming of races in pre-
historical times seemed more and more bound to be studied according to physical
criteria. Further adding to this trend, in 1842 a Swedish professor of anatomy, Anders
Retzius, developed a craniological index calculated from the length and width ratio
of the skull; an especially long skull was said to be “dolichocephalic”, while stocky,
broader skulls were in the “brachycephalic” category. This invention gave scholars the
impression that anthropometric methods had reached a certain degree of sophistica-
tion, hence reliability.

From “Indo-Germanic People” to “Aryan Race”

The above epistemological evolutions explain how anthropologists who took over the
notion of an “Indo-Germanic people” forged by philologists deprived it of a large part
of its linguistic origin and brought it back to the ¿eld of pre-historical archaeology
and anthropometrics. To them, since “Indo-Germanic” peoples included very different
physical types, the Indo-European family had had to develop from heterogeneous racial
elements: amidst all the physical types represented in the family, the question was to
determine which one was the true “Indo-Germanic” element or, to use the terminology

65 Regarding the relations between Fr. Müller and Haeckel, see Dias/Rupp-Eisenreich, p. 285; Römer,
p. 128–129.
66 Indeed, within the framework of the chronology set by the Bible, monogenists were led to consid-
ering the malleability of the human species so that they could manage explaining how the physical
differences between men could have taken place in such a short time. See Sieferle, p. 449.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 193

of these authors, the truly “Aryan” element. Among these authors, Theodor Pösche and
Karl Penka clearly displayed their epistemological choices: the former wrote a book
entitled Die Arier, ein Beitrag zur historischen Anthropologie (Aryans, a Contribution
to Historical Anthropology, Iena 1878) and the latter published a book entitled Origines
Ariacae. Linguistisch-ethnologische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Geschichte der ari-
schen Völker und Sprachen (The Origin of Aryans. Linguistic and Ethnological Studies
on the Most Ancient History of the Aryan Peoples and their Languages, Vienna 1883).
Prone to adopting the thesis of the European origin of “Indo-Germans” – in their view,
not only linguistic arguments but also the discoveries of pre-historical archaeology
spoke in favour of it௘67 – Pösche and Penka dithered about identifying the true “Aryans”
with the “dolichocephalic German-Scandinavian” type or the “brachycephalic Celtic-
Slavian” type. In order to solve this matter, they started from the presupposition that
conquerors were bound to have imposed their language on those they defeated. Since
history showed that in Europe, conquerors had always belonged to the Germanic race,
it was more than likely that “Aryans” were to be identi¿ed with the German-Scandina-
vian dolichocephalic type. Once this was determined, the identity of these ¿rst “Aryans”
remained to be established. Darwin’s theory of natural selection led Pösche and Penka
to consider the homeland whose climate and physical conditions were likely to have
produced such a dominant type as that of “Aryans”. Pösche thought about Lithuania
while Penka was rather inclined towards Scandinavia. In any case, Northern Europe
seemed to be the most logical response, since “Aryans” had been identi¿ed as having
very fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair.௘68
Once they were adopted by specialists in physical anthropology, the terms coined
by Indologists and comparativists underwent important semantic changes. Making
theirs the idea of an “Indo-Germanic people” whose existence had improperly been
suggested by philologists, anthropologists no longer emphasized the kinship between
Indians and Europeans but on the contrary, they insisted on the composite aspect of
the “Indo-Germanic” entity.௘69 This change of perspective is very clear when one sums
up the evolution of the term “Aryan”. At ¿rst, philologists designated the speakers of
Indian and Iranian languages as “Aryans”, presenting them as a people; some of them
extended the use of this term to include the whole “Indo-Germanic people”; lastly,
anthropologists specialised in racial typologies restrained its usage, to apply the term
only to a fraction of the “Indo-Germanic people” who furthermore had nothing to do
with the “Aryans” of India and Iran, even being their antithesis as far as geography
and anthropometry were concerned.
In these physical anthropology writings, the denomination “Aryans” was reserved
for the peoples considered as the purest and whitest amongst the “Indo-Germans”.
This racial use was borrowed from the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines

67 See also K. Penka, Die Herkunft der Arier. Neue Beiträge zur historischen Anthropologie der
europäischen Völker, Vienna/Teschen 1886, p. 68.
68 Ibid., p. 451–452.
69 Römer, p. 134; Penka, Origines Ariacae, p. 6.

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194 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

(1853–1855) by the Count Arthur de Gobineau. However, these authors did not share
Gobineau’s vision of humanity. Gobineau was convinced of a decadence of races
when they were mixed. According to him, “Aryans”, who originated from Asia, had
more easily retained the purity of their race in India, thanks to the caste system, which
had relatively protected them from mixing, even though it was not hermetic enough
to prevent decadence in the long term. Conversely, to such anthropologists as Pösche
and Penka, “Aryans” originating from Europe could only have declined in India, due to
the effects of the subtropical climate. The purest among them were bound to disappear,
while the “bastards” born from mixing with natives survived. While this blending dug
the grave of the “Aryans”’ physical purity, on the other hand the “bastards” ensured
the continuity of the language and culture of their “Aryan” ancestors.௘70
The emergence of such theories faced Indologists with the consequences of their
language abuses. These theories were all the more worrisome since their authors sin-
cerely claimed to represent science, leading their research in a systematic fashion – and
this research was clearly tied to a gradually more aggressive nationalism.௘71 Transform-
ing the quest for the homeland of the “Indo-Germanic people” into the search for the
“purest” and most “authentic” element of the “Indo-Germanic” race while exclusively
identifying this element with the “Germans”, anthropologists clearly made sure they
did not betray the new German nation. In the context of growingly openly displayed
anti-Semitism, making a racial concept out of such a notion as an “Indo-Germanic”
family originating from comparative grammar, was all the more harmful since this
linguistic notion had been developed as distinct from the family of languages called
“Semitic”. The new anthropological theories could easily shift the linguistic opposition
to a racial plane.௘72 De facto, starting in the second half of the 19th century, Jews – who
until then had been included amongst the white or “Caucasian” race as it was often
called – were gradually more often excluded from in racial typologies.௘73 Starting in the
early 20th century, the nationalistic and anti-Semitic bedrock of racial theories asserted
itself more clearly as the shortcomings of anthropometrics that had been proven mean-
while incited many representatives of physical anthropology to do without empirical
bases and to establish their classi¿cation on resolutely ideological criteria.௘74

Philology, a Natural Science or a Human Science?

In the last decades of the 19th century, Indologists in the strict sense of the word, as
well as specialists in comparative grammar had to clarify their position and explain
their opposition to any form of confusion between linguistic and racial typologies. This

70 Sieferle, p. 451–452 and 460.

71 In the case of the Austrian Penka, the determination of a “pure” element of the “Aryan race” and
its identi¿cation with Northern European peoples was a way to exclude Slavs (Penka, Origines
Ariacae, p. 126).
72 All physical anthropologists did not adhere to these theses. See, notably, Virchow’s opposition to
them, mentioned by Reinach, p. 55 s.
73 Ibid., p. 20; Trautmann, p. 221.
74 Sieferle, p. 453.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 195

effort was all the more necessary since their own writings – which insisted on the fact
that Vedic Indians belonged to the white race as opposed to the dark skin colour of
natives – had often been somewhat ambiguous.௘75 Hermann Hirt, appointed Extraordi-
narius in comparative grammar at Leipzig University in 1896, published a monograph
about Indo-Germans in 1905. In it, he defended their European origin yet clearly took
a stand against confusing physical questions with linguistic ones:
Language […] is not characteristic of a race or a people. Many examples have
taught us that a people need not comprise those with the same blood or members
of the same race. […] Had they not been so ignored and were we not to have
to protect ourselves from misinterpretations, we would not need to put such
energy in emphasizing these points.௘76
As can be seen, in the early 20th century the hegemonic pretensions of physical anthro-
pology were intrusive and embarrassing for specialists in comparative grammar. Even
so, Indologists and comparative philologists had already started to react in the 1870s.
At that time, Müller realised the danger that his own terminological approximations ran
and he reconsidered his use of the term “Aryan” as synonymous with “Indo-European”,
at the same time specifying the limits of the notion of linguistic link:
I have declared again and again that if I say Aryas, I mean neither blood nor
bones, nor hair, nor skull; I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language
[…]. To me, an ethnologist௘77 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 brachycephalic grammar.௘78
He thus denounced the epistemological and moral illegitimacy of an approach that
formed its basis by associating domains of different natures. He also condemned the
purely physiological acceptation of language as the mere product of the activity of the
brain and vocal organs. For all that, he persisted in considering comparative gram-
mar as belonging to the natural sciences – an inclusion defended by ethnologists. It
therefore immediately arouses the suspicion that it contained, at least in embryo, a
way of thinking in terms of race. That Müller fought against racial typologies and

75 See, for instance, Weber, BrƗhma৆ismus, p. 4, a passage evoked earlier in “European science at
the rescue of Hinduism”.
76 H. Hirt, Die Indogermanen, ihre Verbreitung, ihre Urheimat und ihre Kultur, vol. 1, Strasbourg
1905, p. 9. Despite his very clear stand against using language as a criterion for race, scholars of
national-socialist allegiance took over his work as soon as he died in 1936, in a book written in
his honour (H. Arntz [ed.], Germanen und Indogermanen. Volkstum, Sprache, Heimat, Kultur.
Festschrift für Hermann Hirt, Heidelberg 1936).
77 Ethnologist designating those who classi¿ed the human species. In the 19th century, the terms
“ethnologist” and “anthropologist” did not fully correspond in German, English and French. Fur-
thermore, these semantic contents were rather loose within each language.
78 Fr. M. Müller, Biographies of Words and The Home of the Aryas, 1888, repr. Madras/New Delhi
1987, p. 120.

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196 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

their confusion with linguistic typologies while he persisted in de¿ning comparative

grammar as a science of nature shows the complexity of the situation௘79 and encourages
probing deeper into these debates.

The Controversial Sharing of Knowledge in the Era of Positivism

In the second half of the 19th century, the choice of including a discipline in the
natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften: “sciences of nature”) or the human sciences
(Geisteswissenschaften: “sciences of the mind”) was all the more signi¿cant because
the opposition between these two ensembles took on a central part in epistemological
reÀection in Germany. In his Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (Introduction
to the Human Sciences, 1883), Wilhelm Dilthey asserted that sciences devoted to
culture and the productions of the mind should not imitate the explicative approach
of the natural sciences, until then considered as a paragon of scientism; they should
adopt a speci¿c, comprehensive method be¿tting their particular subject.௘80 The same
year, Karl Penka published Origines Ariacae, subtitled “Linguistic-Ethnological Stud-
ies”, in which he said he was convinced that it was necessary to include comparative
grammar in the ¿eld of the natural sciences.௘81 He treated history in the same fashion,
although it was considered by many of his contemporaries as the prize discipline of the
human sciences. To him, since the actors of history were peoples, the study of histori-
cal events had to be taken up by “ethnology”, a discipline that consisted in identifying
and classifying races. For this, ethnologists enjoyed the help of two auxiliary sciences:
“anthropology” on the one hand and “linguistics” on the other. Both were supposed to
accomplish the preparatory work necessary to anthropological classi¿cation, i. e. iden-
tifying the various “racial elements” comprised in a given “ethnic ensemble”. This ap-
proach was explicitly modelled on that of a chemist isolating atoms within a molecule.
There was one difference, however. To Penka, the task of the anthropologist and the
linguist was made easier because “races” blended less than “atoms”.௘82 The function of
anthropology was to study men with the help of biology and its accurate nature made
it a worthy natural science. As for linguistics, Penka understood it in its comparative
dimension and intended it to supplement the information supplied by anthropology
whenever it proved insuf¿cient. From an epistemological standpoint, he was hoping
that combining these two different sciences would have two outcomes: making it pos-
sible to turn history into a natural science by giving it the means to identify the laws
of human development, and saving linguistics from its “lack of method” by granting
it the “quality of accuracy pertaining to the natural sciences”.௘83

79 See P. Rabault, From Language to Man. German Indology and Ethnology in the Epistemological
Battle¿eld of the 19th Century, in: McGetchin/Park/SarDesai, p. 337–360.
80 A. Diemer, Die Differenzierung der Wissenschaften in die Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften und
die Begründung der Geisteswissenschaften als Wissenschaft, in: Beiträge zur Entwicklung der
Wissenschaftstheorie im 19. Jahrhundert, Meisenheim a. G. 1968, p. 201–210.
81 Penka, Origines Ariacae, p. II. Penka had been a student of Friedrich Müller.
82 Ibid., p. III–IV.
83 Ibid., p. III and p. VII.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 197

Such a hierarchy between natural sciences and human sciences is not to be found
in Müller’s works. De¿ning both domains according to their respective subjects, he
acknowledged them in their speci¿city. The expression he used to designate the ¿eld
that served as a counterpoint to the natural sciences ( physical science in his writings
in English, Naturwissenschaften in his writings in German) was historical science
(historische Wissenschaften).௘84 In the British epistemological tradition inherited from
the works of John Stuart Mill, it was common practice to oppose the domains of moral
science and physical science. In replacing moral with historical, Müller placed him-
self in the continuation of the German tradition that Penka fervently fought against. In
this tradition, history was the star discipline of a domain that escaped the regularity
of the natural sciences:௘85 according to him, the latter dealt with “the works of God”
while “historical science” was devoted to the “works of man”.௘86 In the ¿eld of “physi-
cal science”, Müller was in favour of a threefold method: ¿rst an “empirical” stage
(accumulating material) followed by a “classi¿catory” stage (establishing typologies –
either genealogical or morphological) and lastly a “theoretical” stage that should lead
to formulating general conclusions from the facts previously observed and classi¿ed.
While this pattern was in keeping with the inductive approach as promoted by John
Stuart Mill, Müller said that he did not take it up from him but from William Whewell,௘87
whose conception of induction had been inÀuenced by Kantian philosophy.௘88 Once
again, this shows that despite his British environment, German references were never
far away in the work of the Oxford Sanskritist.

Speech, Language and Speaker: between Nature and Mind

There were limits to the points in common between William Whewell and Müller.
To Whewell, language resulted from the imagination and social faculties of man; its
study therefore did not pertain to the ¿eld of “natural history” but to “human history”.௘89
Therefore the inductive approach – a prerogative of “natural history” – could not be
applied to it. As for Müller, he was ¿rmly opposed to imputing a “historical” nature
to language, preferring to evoke its transformations in terms of growth,௘90 to underline
that man did not control it. To characterise language, he used organicist vocabulary,
writing about “the organic system of the English speech” in which “not a single drop
of foreign blood [had] entered” as well as the “lightest pulsations of language, […]

84 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language, p. 23.

85 Dilthey developed his epistemological dualism as a reaction to J. S. Mill; see, in particular, W. Dil-
they, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Versuch einer Grundlegung für das Studium der
Gesellschaft und der Geschichte, 1883, 9th ed., Stuttgart/Göttingen 1990 (Bd. 1 der Gesammelten
Schriften), p. XVII.
86 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language, p. 23.
87 Ibid., p. 5.
88 J. Skorupski, Nineteenth-Century British Philosophy, in: R. H. Popkin (ed.), The Columbia His-
tory of Western Philosophy, New York 1999, p. 575–586.
89 Bosch, p. 218–219.
90 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language, p. 40.

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198 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

the common blood that ran through the veins of Aryan dialects”.௘91 By “growth”, he
meant an evolution from birth to death, via a phase of maturity. This was why com-
parative grammar could be part of the natural sciences and set about searching for the
“laws” of this “growth”, characterised by a twofold process of “phonetic decline” and
“dialectical regeneration”.
While they illustrated its universal nature, these two processes showed that the
development of language could never be carried out in a totally autonomous fashion.
It always brought the speakers into play, since the phonetic modi¿cations experienced
by linguistic roots were due to the failing memory of men. Furthermore, its dialectal
or, on the contrary, literary nature came from the use that individuals made of it. This
recognition of the speaker forced Müller to introduce a conceptual distinction between
speech and languages. If speech did not evolve in a historical, accidental manner, it
was because it had been created by God, as were all the elements that comprised na-
ture.௘92 It was therefore perfectly justi¿ed to study language within the framework of
the natural sciences. However, starting from the moment men had updated the speech
faculty God had given them, language became divided into multiple languages whose
respective natures depended on the minds of their speakers.௘93 They were henceforth
submitted to historical factors that propelled them into the realm of contingency. Mül-
ler reserved the word “philology” for works devoted to the study of one language in
particular and aiming to “trace the social, moral, intellectual, and religious progress of
the human race”௘94 – a de¿nition that ¿t his practice as a Sanskritist in every respect. On
the other hand, the “science of language” had to identify the nature of speech and the
laws of its development. Its object was not limited to a single language but extended
to the comparison of several languages. It therefore equated comparative philology.
Whereas the “science of language” and “comparative philology” remained rooted in
the natural sciences, “philology” in the classical sense belonged to the human sciences.
Taking speakers into account had yet another consequence. In line with German
Romantics, Müller was convinced that what distinguished man from the rest of the
natural world was his ability to contemplate and that no words could exist without
a semantic content.௘95 He thus strongly disagreed with evolutionist theories. Indeed,
considering that man belonged to the animal kingdom and that the human species di-
rectly stemmed from the great apes through biological evolution, Darwin thought that

91 Ibid., p. 21 and 80; Fr. M. Müller, Über die Resultate der Sprachwissenschaft. Vorlesung, ge-
halten in der kaiserlichen Universität zu Strassburg am 23. Mai 1872, in: Essays. Vol. IV: Auf-
sätze, hauptsächlich sprachwissenschaftlichen Inhalts enthaltend, Leipzig 1876, p. 114. While
the examples mentioned refer to the biological model, Müller was also considerably inÀuenced
by geology. For instance, he asserted that he did not understand the term “growth” as organic
growth – “in the sense of the growth as applied to a tree” – but rather as forming by successive
strata, such as “the growth of the crust of the earth”.
92 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 8.
93 Fr. M. Müller, Über die Resultate, p. 124.
94 Fr. M. Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language, vol. 1, p. 24.
95 Fr. M. Müller, Comparative Mythology, p. 7.

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language, stemming from the imitation of natural sounds and voluntary interjections,
was not the privilege of men. On the other hand, in asserting both the divine origin
and the speci¿cally human nature of language, Müller considered that “the one great
barrier between the brute and man [was] language. […] Language [was] our Rubicon,
and no brute [would] dare to pass it.”௘96 Hence he insisted in countering Darwin’s thesis,
which he decked out with the disdainful names “Bow Wow” and “Pooh Pooh”.௘97 Mül-
ler’s deep religious convictions can partly explain why he did not follow Darwinians
on the issue of the origin and nature of language, although he regularly proclaimed that
he supported evolutionism.௘98 However, in insisting on the divine nature of language
and the role of the human mind in the formation of languages, he also wanted to dis-
tance himself from the purely physiological conceptions of language, in the name of
which a growing number of authors intended to treat languages on the same plane as
physical traits.
Penka was a representative of the trend that consisted in considering linguistic
forms as dependant on the physical features of their speakers. Whereas Müller claimed
that sounds and concepts were inseparable and appeared jointly, Penka maintained that
sounds preceded concepts, even though he did not think that language was of animal
origin. He thus introduced an opposition between the two sides of language and took
the opposite view of the theory – notably represented by Humbolt – according to which
the articulation of sounds depended on the way the mind controlled the vocal organs.
On the contrary, Penka said he was convinced that “all phonetic mutations are achieved
unconsciously and totally unintentionally [and that] their origin was of physiological
and not psychical nature.”௘99 Keen to bring back all the dimensions of language on a
purely material plane, he interpreted the fact that man had no hold over phonetic muta-
tions as a sign that the latter were submitted to physiological laws. His reasoning was
poles apart from Müller’s, which attributed these mutations to the progressive fading
of the sense of linguistic roots, i. e. to an intellectual process. Likewise, according to
Penka, concepts were only linked to sounds a posteriori, and even the spiritual side of
language was subordinate to its physical dimension.௘100

From Linguistic to Anthropological Investigation

The role that Penka attributed to the physical features of speakers in the formation
of languages explains why he found it pertinent to blend investigations in physical
anthropology and linguistic comparativism in order to establish racial typologies and
subordinate linguistic classi¿cations to the results delivered by anthropology.௘101 As for
Müller, inasmuch as he thought that languages develop according to a historical, social

96 Quoted in Bosch, p. 185.

97 Ibid., p. 190; Neufeldt, p. 129 s.
98 Neufeldt, p. 159.
99 Penka, Origines Ariacae, p. 189.
100 Ibid., p. 12.
101 Ibid., p. 120.

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200 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

and political context, as well as processes that take place in the minds of their speakers,
he willingly conceded that linguistic classi¿cations made it possible to distinguish the
peoples that made up mankind. However, since he did not establish any link between
the characteristics of languages and the physical features of their speakers, he could not
conceive that commonness of language could highlight anything other than an intel-
lectual kinship among its speakers.௘102 Expressing serious doubts as to the relevance of
classi¿cations based on physical characters – and even as to the existence of races – he
considered that, when it came to the history of humanity, languages provided better
information than physical anthropology.௘103 Comparative philology should remain ab-
solutely independent from anthropology (understood as setting up racial typologies).
There are Aryan and Semitic languages, but it is not scienti¿c […] to speak of
Aryan race, of Aryan blood, or of Aryan skulls, and then to try to make ethno-
logical categorizations on a linguistic basis. Those two sciences, linguistics and
ethnology, cannot, at least for now, be strongly enough separated.௘104
Nevertheless, philology could serve anthropology, but with “philology” and “anthro-
pology” holding meanings very different from “linguistic classi¿cation” and “physi-
cal anthropology”. In the late 19th century, anthropology no longer consisted in only
studying man from a “physiological” viewpoint: it also examined “man’s ¿rst thoughts,
his customs, laws, traditions, legends, religions and even his ¿rst philosophical
thoughts”.௘105 Only in-depth knowledge of the language of a given people made it pos-
sible to penetrate these elements of “inner life”. “Philology” could thus be the “hand-
maid of Anthropology”, but only if one understood “philology” in the traditional sense
of the study of a particular language, and “anthropology” in the new sense of the study
of the culture of primitive peoples.௘106
Both scholars used the same terms, yet each time they understood them with very
different meanings. This is why, even though they both proclaimed that comparative
philology should be included in the natural sciences, their scienti¿c practices remained
fundamentally divergent. Penka was a high school teacher, and admittedly his institu-
tional position did not equate Müller’s. However, at a time when works on the “Aryans”
were multiplying in German-speaking countries as well as France and Great Britain,
his works circulated fairly widely, all the more so because he was the ¿rst author to
formulate the thesis of the Scandinavian origin of this supposed “race”. This is why in
1888, Müller took the trouble to refute these theses. It should be said that in his book,
written in 1883, Penka had criticised the etymology of the term “Aryan” as put for-
ward by Müller in 1866. The latter had “Ɨrja” deriving from “arja”, a word used in

102 Fr. M. Müller, Über die Resultate, p. 114.

103 Fr. M. Müller, Biographies of Words, p. 89.
104 Fr. M. Müller, Über die Resultate, p. 114.
105 Fr. M. Müller, On the Classi¿cation of Mankind by Language or by Blood, in: Chips from a Ger-
man Workshop, new edition, vol. I: Bibliographical Essays, London 1894, p. 242.
106 Ibid., p. 245–246.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 201

classical Sanskrit to designate a “vaiçja” [sic], i. e. a member of the next to last caste,
more precisely a ploughman or a peasant. This explanation caused Penka’s indigna-
tion, as he could not conceive that the highest castes had agreed to take the name that
an inferior caste gave itself. Instead, he suggested an etymology where “Ɨrja” derived
from the root ar- (shine), on which compounds were formed that evoked the act of
lighting and lightening. Ɩrja, according to him, was chosen to refer to the especially
light skin colour of this race originating from Scandinavia.௘107 Aware that these ety-
mological propositions were suf¿ciently elaborated to convince a number of readers,
Müller took them apart one by one, insisting on the fact that Penka was an ethnologist
and not a philologist.௘108
Starting in the 1870s, Müller strove to repeat, in all circumstances, that the word
“Aryan, in scienti¿c language, [was] utterly unapplicable to race.”௘109 In doing so, he
meant to express himself in the name of all Indologists and ratify their conviction
that linguistic and racial typologies could not and should not be intertwined. He was
hoping to clear the confusion he himself had kept up when he used the term “Aryan”
and applied biological metaphors to languages. However, given the popularity that
the notion of “Aryan race” had acquired in the meantime amongst ethnologists (in
the English sense of the word) and anthropologists, this clari¿cation came about too
late. Furthermore, although he was quite sincere in his condemnation of the misuse of
the term “Aryan”, Müller occasionally continued to use the expression “Aryan race”
in his writings.௘110 Combined with the policy of the Prussian government in favour of
comparative grammar, these deviations proved fateful for the perception of German
Indology abroad. They were instrumental in the fact that it was perceived as a form of
cultural and linguistic comparativism whose motivations were mainly nationalistic –
and although it remained one of the major symbols of German science, this was likely
to mortgage its rigorous nature.

The Critical Transfer of Comparative Grammar in France

The Immigrant Fate of German Jewish Indologists

With a German higher education although settled in Great Britain ever since the begin-
ning of his career and a naturalised Englishman, Müller was in the characteristically
awkward situation of being an exile. He was still labelled German, not only because of
his own reiterations of his German identity but also because he was always surrounded
with German collaborators, some of them hired for editing the Sacred Books of the East
and others for the ‫ۿ‬g-Veda-Sanhita. Above all, he was thought of as an intermediary
for German Indologists who wished to ¿nd work in Great Britain or obtain a post at

107 Penka, Origines Ariacae, p. 34–37.

108 Fr. M. Müller, Biographies of Words, p. 124.
109 Ibid., p. 90.
110 See Fr. M. Müller’s repentance in his book from 1894, p. 232. Several occurrences of the expres-
sion “Aryan race” are to be found in India: What Can It Teach Us?

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202 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

the service of the British government in India.௘111 Until the end of the 1840s, German
Indologists mainly sojourned abroad to perfect their training and ¿nd the manuscripts
that they were short of. Henceforth, they were looking for jobs. The posts that some
of them obtained in universities abroad con¿rm the international reputation of Ger-
man science and the advance that Germany held over its neighbours in the ¿elds of
Indology and comparative philology. At the same time, this also reÀects increasingly
dif¿cult life conditions in Germany: with the rising number of people trained in Indol-
ogy, competition to obtain chairs was considerably growing.
Quite obviously, scholars of Jewish faith were the most touched by the under-
employment of philologists.௘112 The 19th century was, admittedly, very important as
regards the emancipation of Jews in Germany, many of them were able to devote them-
selves to academic careers. However, discrimination was lingering, notably when the
discipline in question was in a strained situation, which was precisely the case with
Indology.௘113 Anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in German society – as well as in many
other countries in Europe – through all its social classes, even contaminating those
who nevertheless protested against its more radical forms. Occasional traces of a kind
of ordinary anti-Semitism can be found in the letters from Rudolf Roth to Weber,௘114
despite Weber’s close links with such Jewish intellectuals as Heymann Steinthal and
Theodor Goldstücker, and his commitment in favour of Jews during the quarrel with
anti-Semitism. An anti-Semitic tone would resurface in the correspondence between
Roth and Weber about colleagues they were rival or disagreed with, even though the
fact that other colleagues belonged to the Jewish religion posed no problem to them.௘115
In this particularly unfavourable context, Jewish scholars often had but one alterna-
tive, exile or conversion; at times, they even had to combine both choices, as was the
case with Theodor Goldstücker and Theodor Aufrecht, who converted to Protestant-
ism. The former spent all of his career as a Professor of Sanskrit at London University
College (1851–1872) while the latter assisted Müller before he worked in the libraries
of Oxford and then Cambridge, ¿nally becoming the holder of the chair of Sanskrit
in Edinburgh, in 1861.
Theodor Benfey only obtained a post of Ordinarius in Göttingen in 1862, many years
after he was appointed Extraordinarius (in 1848, when he converted to Protestantism).

111 StaBi 2b 1869: Müller, Frederick Max (20), Müller to Althoff (February 23, 1885).
112 J. Renger, Altorientalistik und jüdische Gelehrte in Deutschland – Deutsche und österreichische
Altorientalisten im Exil, in: W. Barner/C. König (ed.), Jüdische Intellektuelle und die Philologien
in Deutschland 1871–1933, Göttingen 2001, p. 247–261.
113 For a nuanced appraisal of the situation of Jewish students and professors in Germany until the
mid-19th century, see M. Richarz, Der Eintritt der Juden in die akademischen Berufe. Jüdische
Studenten und Akademiker in Deutschland 1678–1848, Tübingen 1974.
114 Brückner/Butzenberger et alii, p. 104.
115 In a letter dated from Tübingen, October 24, 1865, Roth made the following recommendation to
his student Julius Grill: “You would be better off not trying to become acquainted with professor
Goldstücker, who teaches Sanskrit at London University. He is very ill disposed towards us in
Germany. He used to be a Jew, he converted years ago yet deep inside, he has remained a Jew.”
(quoted in ibid., p. 109)

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 203

His case is exemplary of the true assault course of Jewish candidates to an academic
career. Between the end of his studies in 1828–1829 and his Extraordinariat, he al-
ready went through twenty years surviving on the meager salary of a private tutor and
then a Privatdozent, although he was married and had several children. The scale of
the prejudices he was faced with shows through in a letter Lassen wrote to Ewald in
1844. Thanking his correspondent for sending him a copy of the harsh review he had
written about a book by Benfey, Lassen wrote:
Benfey has well deserved his correction. I only know his book from the descrip-
tion Gildemeister has made of it and from what I know, his efforts in Sanskrit
show as much impudence as ignorance. It would be desirable to counter, every-
where, the ill effects of the Jews, which have been multiplying௘116 in literature. It
is truly a calamity. These people consider literature as a stock exchange where
limitless trickeries are allowed and where one uses all possible devices in order
to achieve good speculation, that is to make money through deceit and lies.௘117
To what extend did other Indologists share these violent, anti-Semitic comments? Ad-
mittedly, Lassen’s attitude was poles apart from Weber’s.௘118 However, it shows the
obstacles that arose for Jewish scholars – and this observation applies to the whole
19th century. This was why, in the early 1840s, when he had been a Privatdozent for
a few years already, Benfey turned to France and sought in Burnouf an interlocutor
likely to help him ¿nd a job in Paris. However, the French Indologist answered that
he was sorry but he could not do anything for him, enjoining him to address himself
to Dübner, a German bookseller settled in the French capital city.௘119 However, well
aware of the critical situation Benfey was in, at least he tried to help him by champi-
oning his works in France. With this aim in view, he wrote to Mohl, the Orientalist (of
Protestant origin) from Württemberg who had been able to afford the luxury of turning
down the post attributed to him at Tübingen University in order to settle in Paris on
his own accord. Burnouf encouraged Mohl to more leniency towards Benfey’s work:
My dear friend,
I am sending you all the tickets I have for the next session. In return, I will ask
you, as a favour, to let go your inÀexible rigor when it comes to Benfey’s book
on India.௘120 Benfey is a very deserving man. He is a Jew and, as such, very

116 Wuchernd: this expression plays on the polysemy of this participle, which both means “prolif-
erating” and “practicing usury”.
117 Fick/Selle, p. 159, Lassen to Ewald (Bonn, November 3, 1844).
118 Weber notably intervened with Whitney in favour of Benfey (who was, admittedly, already
converted and Ordinarius at that time). Whitney then had the Göttingen Indologist elected as
an honorary member of the American Oriental Society in 1878 (StaBi, 2b 1854 W. D. Whitney,
Bl. 195, Whitney to Weber, New Haven, June 2, 1878).
119 L. Delisle, p. 328, Burnouf to Benfey (Paris, April 9, 1841).
120 It is the article entitled “Indian”, written by Benfey for the Encyclopaedia of Ersch and Gruber
(vol. 7, 1840), which was intended to be a synthesis of the knowledge on India at that time.

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204 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

unhappy where he is; every month he writes to me heartbreaking letters implor-

ing me to ¿nd a job for him here, where he would like to come and settle with
his wife and children. I have looked and found nothing. Benfey imagines that
I have a very long arm. With all my strength, I try and dissuade him to leave
his homeland, and he answers that a Prussian Jew has no homeland. However,
you would do him a great favour – at least he believes so – if you said a word
about his Essay which is a real book where the scattered notions to be found
in so many rare and expensive books are methodically and interestingly pre-
sented. It is not the poor devil’s fault if the lack of bread forces him to write for
Encyclopedias. For that matter, it is the question of just one sentence, which
will not compromise you and for which I take responsibility if responsibility is
to be taken. Domine, exaudi vocem meam! And believe me, I remain, in Latin
as in French, your devoted,
Eugène Burnouf
The hopes that Theodor Benfey entertained about ¿nding refuge in France remained
might-have-beens and he had to wait yet another few years before he was appointed ex-
traordinary professor at Göttingen. At least, Burnouf’s recommendations in his favour
enabled him to obtain, in 1842, the Volney Prize for his Griechisches Wurzel-Lexikon
(Dictionary of Greek Roots, 1838–1842).௘121
Whether or not they were Jewish, German philologists who chose France had in
common their training in the methods of critique, hermeneutics and comparative gram-
mar that were so developed in Germany. Even those whose specialties were not Ori-
entalist often had some competency in Sanskrit and comparative grammar. Seeing the
small number of posts in these disciplines in French universities, many of these highly
quali¿ed philologists had to content themselves with posts as teachers – usually of
German – in provincial high-schools that were generally very distant from philology-
specialised libraries. Despite all this, they often published works of academic level in
their respective domains – Sanskrit, German, German literature etc. Once they were
integrated in the French higher education system or employed in other posts, they made
great contributions, introducing their host country to the philological methods in which
they had been trained to in Germany. Jewish philologists were at the forefront of this
movement. In 1869, stating this situation with his unfortunately customary ambiva-
lence in a letter addressed to Weber, Renan exclaimed:

German science has never won more support in France than it has over the last
years. What would be desirable is that it be true Germans who came to us. Al-
most all the German immigration in France is made up of Jews. We shall not be
the ones to revive the distinction of circumcision and foreskin, so wisely ended
by Saint Paul. You know that this race is very mixed, much charlatanism has
crept into it and it should be welcome without reservation yet with precaution.

121 Ibid., p. 345–346, Burnouf to Benfey (Paris, April 30, 1842).

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 205

In short, however, and for want of something better, they ef¿ciently work at
introducing German culture to France. They do much more good than harm,
and there are several excellent men among them.௘122

This letter that smacks of anti-Semitism shows that the tolerance towards Jews had its
limits in France. However, it also shows the part played by German Jewish scholars
in transferring the scienti¿c methods of their country of origin, and that this transfer
was substantial enough to be noticed by their contemporaries.

The Slow Penetration of Comparative Grammar in France

Ernest Renan’s acknowledgement of the “introduction of Germanic culture in France”
via Jewish philologists who emigrated from Germany calls for further clari¿cation. First,
the latter were not the only actors in this transfer. In the ¿rst half of the century, one of
the central ¿gures of German philology emigrated to France was Karl Benedikt Hase. A
Protestant trained in classical and Oriental philology in Germany, he left to try his luck
in France’s capital city. He arrived penniless in 1801, and in 1852, he became the ¿rst
holder of a chair in comparative grammar at the Sorbonne.௘123 Another ¿rst-rate ¿gure
was Jules Mohl, who occupied a key position in French Orientalism as of the 1840s, as
a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, a professor of Persian at
the Collège de France, an inspector of the Oriental typography works at the Imprimerie,
and the secretary of the Société Asiatique de Paris. To these immigrants who were not
motivated by reasons of faith should be added scholars coming from Alsace and Lor-
raine. Admittedly, they were French before 1870, yet they were bearers of Germanic
culture noticeable, in both their mastery of the German language and their scienti¿c
methods. Lastly, amongst the most important philologists of the time, there were such
personalities as Bréal and the brothers James and Arsène Darmesteter, who had been
brought up in the German language and culture by virtue of their family origins.௘124
The introduction of these methods in France was quite delicate. In the background
was the contradictory relation between a feeling that it was necessary to renew French
education and a rejection of scienti¿c forms deemed incompatible with the French
academic tradition. In Germany, there was a clear break between the Gymnasien re-
served for school training, and universities supposed to encourage a participative at-
titude towards knowledge on the part of students, whereas in France there were no
seminars and courses were mainly lectures.௘125 To this was added the practice of “public

122 StaBi 2d (17) 1863: J. E. Renan, Renan to Weber (Sèvres, August 10, 1869).
123 M. Espagne, Allemands et germanophones dans l’enseignement supérieur littéraire en France,
in: M. Parisse (ed.), Les échanges universitaires franco-allemands du Moyen Age au XXe siècle,
Paris 1991, p. 160. Hase was a go-between for many Germans who arrived in Paris looking for
a job.
124 Ibid., p. 168–171.
125 G. Bergounioux, L’enseignement de la linguistique et de la philologie en France au XIXe siècle
d’après les af¿ches des cours des facultés des lettres 1845–1897, Archives de la Société d’His-
toire Epistémologie des Sciences du Langage 2, 2nd series, 1990, p. 7.

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206 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

lectures”, open to audiences beyond the sole student circle. This prompted professors to
lapse into rhetoric, mainly encouraging literary intuition. The shape that philology had
taken in Germany came down to applying to literary studies procedures of the scien-
ti¿c type. On the other hand, starting in the early 19th century, the successive govern-
ments of France had been keen to counterbalance the weight of scienti¿c rationalism,
which they had considered overrated ever since the creation of such institutions as the
Ecole centrale at the time of the Convention. Furthermore, as comparative grammar
was making progress, the vocabulary of German philologists became more and more
technical, and more obscure for the French community, which was concerned with the
elegance and intelligibility of the scholarly speech.௘126 Another factor has often been put
forward to explain the dif¿culties for the German philological “model” to penetrate in
France: the long tradition of general grammar inherited from Port-Royal and notably
embodied by Silvestre de Sacy. General grammar was concerned with linguistic com-
parison, although it did not envisage it from a phonetic angle, and language kinships
were attributed to the universality of the faculties of the human mind. This is why even
though he did take an interest in Bopp’s works,௘127 Silvestre de Sacy neither used them
in his own, nor worked at promoting Bopp in France. The long absence of comparative
grammar in French university education was not due to unawareness of the German
work but rather to prolonged reluctance.
As evidence of this, more than thirty years went by between the publication of
Bopp’s Vergleichende Grammatik in Germany, in 1833, and that of its French trans-
lation by Bréal, in 1866 – even though Bopp started to learn Sanskrit in Paris, even
though French Orientalists knew him well and Jean-Louis and Eugène Burnouf had
already planned to translate his works into French. Admittedly, Jean-Louis Burnouf’s
plan was interrupted on account of his failing health and the workload of his lec-
tures at the Collège de France and Collège Louis-Le-Grand.௘128 On the other hand,
it is more surprising that Eugène Burnouf did not ¿nish this work. In a letter dated
1828, Bopp thanked him for having expressed a “favourable opinion […] on his gram-
mar” – probably the Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache published in Germany
in 1824–1827 – and to have found it “worthy of being translated [sic] into French by
[him].”௘129 The correspondence between both scholars does not mention why Eugène
Burnouf did not persevere. Apparently, there was no project of translating the 1833
Vergleichende Grammatik. Perhaps Eugène Burnouf did not feel such urgent need to
promote Bopp’s works since his own were partly ¿lling the gaps that existed in France
in the ¿eld of comparative grammar. Furthermore, as of 1829, it seems that both schol-
ars were rivals when it came to deciphering the “Zend” language and its relation to

126 J. Bollack, Pour une histoire sociale de la critique, in: M. Bollack/H. Wismann, Philologie und
Hermeneutik im 19. Jahrhundert, vol. II, Göttingen 1983, p. 18–19
127 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 130–131, Silvestre de Sacy to Bopp (Paris, July 22, 1820).
128 Lefmann, vol. I, Annex, p. 138, J.-L. Burnouf to Bopp (Paris, August 20, 1822); ibid., p. 139–141,
J.-L. Burnouf to Bopp (Paris, September 30, 1823); ibid., p. 141–142, J.-L. Burnouf to Bopp
(Paris, August 18, 1824).
129 Ibid., p. 156–157, Bopp to E. Burnouf, 1828.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 207

Sanskrit.௘130 Burnouf was therefore anxious to prove the original nature of his works
and to differentiate himself from Bopp’s discoveries. The other French Orientalists had
little interest in a form of comparativism that diverged from the spirit of general gram-
mar, and as regards the philologists of German origin likely to undertake this type of
translation, their position in the French educational system was far from dominant.௘131

A Militant Transfer: A War against “False Erudition”

Given the surprising absence of a French translation of Bopp’s opus magnum, and the
fact that Eugène Burnouf could not continue the course in comparative grammar that
he had started in 1829 at the Ecole normale supérieure, there is no denying that com-
parative grammar had only slightly penetrated in France up to the middle of the century.
At that period, the idea began to form that the German university system could serve
as a reference towards which one could turn. This was just after the 1848 revolution,
when the idea of nationhood was gaining ground and Paris had lost much of the cos-
mopolitism it had enjoyed in the 1830s௘–1840s. Because of the growing international
emulation, what was happening abroad started to be taken into account – if only so that
a model could be drawn from it and adapted to local conditions, or so that the others
could be beaten, or at least caught up with, on their own ground.
A series of institutional innovations that notably started in the 1860s bear witness
to the resolve for literature and human sciences in France to enter the era of scienti¿c
research. As early as 1858, a journal resolutely devoted to the promotion of German
science was founded, the Revue germanique. The ¿rst issue published a letter by Ernest
Renan, addressed to the journal’s directors and exhorting them to give a major role to
“philological and Oriental studies in Germany”, the land that was the cradle of the “critical
and historical science of the human mind”, and where there thrived specialised journals
of implacable scienti¿c rigour.௘132 In 1866, another journal came into being, that backed
up the Revue germanique: The Revue critique d’histoire et de littérature, created by the
Romanists Gaston Paris and Paul Meyer, the Latinist Charles Morel and the Orientalist
Hermann Zotenberg. The Revue critique was explicitly modelled after German and
British journals. Its speci¿city was that it exclusively comprised critical reviews that
aimed to replace the polished tone of literary chronicles with specialist discourse, i. e.
void of both personal attacks and complacency. The majority of the books listed were
German works, and the journal’s writers wished to work at promoting, in an activist
way, disciplines that were little represented on French soil, ¿rst of all Orientalism:

130 Ibid., p. 158 s.; see also Bréal, Grammaire comparée, p. XXIX.
131 “The social conditions concerning the reception of comparative grammar in France in the 19th
century: Bopp, Burnouf, Bréal” were analysed by Roland Lardinois during a seminar on “French-
German Orientalism in the 19th century; The French-German birth of Orientalist philology”, held
in Paris ENS Ulm, June 5, 2004.
132 E. Renan, Les Etudes savantes en Allemagne. Lettre aux directeurs de la Revue germanique sur
les études philologiques et orientales en Allemagne, Paris, 15 Decembre 1857, (Letter to the
publishers of the Revue germanique, about philological and Oriental studies in Germany), Revue
Germanique 1, 1858, p. 21–26.

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208 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

In our compendium, the Orient does not have the place that it deserves and that
we would like to grant it. […] This shortcoming is all the more so regrettable
because at this very moment, in Germany, a series of studies on the Oriental
group of Indo-European languages have been undertaken, which we are not able
to publish in suf¿cient length for our readers. In this regard, the poverty of our
compendium is correlative with the de¿ciency of Oriental studies in France.௘133

By making such appeals, the aporia of the scarcity of competent people to promote
under-represented disciplines could be overcome by mobilising energies in order to
create a virtuous circle of scienti¿c interest. This was how, in 1878, writers were able
to declare, with some satisfaction: “Oriental studies […] now occupy an almost royal
place in our collection.”௘134 Until the First World War, the journal was supplied with ar-
ticles by Orientalists and scholars well-versed in comparative grammar, such as Michel
Bréal, Léon Feer, Abel Bergaigne, James Darmesteter, Auguste Barth, Victor Henry,
Sylvain Lévi, Antoine Meiller, Albert Cuny and Joseph Vendryès. All in all, between
1866 and 1914 no less than seven hundred articles speci¿cally devoted to Indology and
comparative grammar were published in the Revue. Such mobilisation fully reÀected
the activist – even ¿ghting – spirit of this journal, which, in Bréal’s own words, “had
been intended to struggle against false erudition, and to spur on, amongst us [French
scholars], a liking for original research.” As Bréal highlighted, even though some pro-
fessors of the Sorbonne took part in the Revue, the large majority of their colleagues
were not even aware of its existence, or only saw it as a threat for the hegemonic situ-
ation of their own institution.௘135
In fact, if comparative grammar had (temporarily) entered the Sorbonne in 1852, it
was less out of interest for a new discipline on the part of this very traditional institution
than as a result of Napoleon III’s intervention. He had asked a personal favour for his
protégé Karl Benedikt Hase. This was the reason why the Minister of Education Victor
Duruy decided to found a new teaching post dedicated to the disciplines that did not
¿nd their place at university. The Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes thus came about
in 1868. In its 4th section (Philological Sciences), it immediately offered courses in
Sanskrit as well as in comparative grammar, the former dispensed by Abel Bergaigne,
as a tutor, the latter carried out by Bréal, as a director of studies. In the end, the impor-
tation of the German philological model, which should have opened a reform era in
the French academic system, mainly took place outside the university. As far as these
domains were concerned, this transfer process combined both the acknowledgement of
a scienti¿c de¿ciency in France and the will of scholars, immigrated from Germany or
stemming from Germanic cultural milieus, to promote their philological know-how. In-
deed, it was their speci¿c competency and they were convinced of its worth. In addition

133 A nos lecteurs, Revue critique d’histoire et de littérature 1869/I, January 2, 1869, p. 2.
134 Ibid., 1878/I, January 5, 1878, p. 3.
135 M. Bréal, La Revue critique d’histoire et de littérature, Revue de l’instruction publique 29/6,
May 6, 1869, p. 87–88.

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to helping his immigrant fellow-countrymen, Mohl took part in the transfer of German
works to France. His contribution can be assessed from the annual reports he wrote
between 1840 and 1867 as Secretary of the Société asiatique de Paris.௘136 In the eyes of
his colleagues, his important institutional posts and his great erudition pointed him out
as “the model of scholars and professors”, and the “acknowledged, undisputed leader
of Oriental studies”.௘137 Admittedly, even though he had acquired French nationality,
he had to be cautious in his positions, so that he would not be regarded as an “agent”
of Germany – as can be seen from Bréal’s letter to Weber mentioned earlier. This did
not keep him from making the most of the distance that his foreign origin provided
him, in order to expose the de¿ciencies of the French system, and to suggest solutions
directly inspired by German science:
Were teaching perfectly free in France, a movement of this kind௘138 would set in
and gradually develop. However, here, the help of the Government is needed –
and it is highly desirable that it makes the most of the rising trend in order to
strengthen the teaching of classical languages and literatures. In Germany, the
study of Sanskrit has rejuvenated this domain. It would do the same in France.
It should be primarily introduced in the Ecole Normale. From there, it would
spread to university, which, despite what has been said, is truly the heart of
France. There, this teaching would ¿nd young, cultured and prepared minds,
[…] and this is how […] the circle of ideas could expand in everyone’s mind.௘139
When, in 1867, Mohl ceased to hold the post of Secretary of the Asian Society and the
famous reports also stopped, various journals and institutions that came about at that
time took over. Bréal took up the torch. He put a lot of himself into these new institu-
tions and into the effort for circulating Bopp’s works amongst the French public – as
can be seen from his translation of the Vergleichende Grammatik in ¿ve books, pub-
lished between 1866 and 1874. In the same fashion as Mohl – although he was not
German – Bréal based his enterprise on the direct contacts he had had with his German
masters, notably Weber. He enjoyed a prestigious institutional position, as the holder of
a chair in comparative grammar at the Collège de France created for him in 1866. To
this were added the functions of General Inspector of Education, which he exercised
as of the 1880s.௘140 Bréal’s actions in favour of comparative grammar were noticeable
in what he declared to Weber in 1866, concerning his courses at the Collège de France:

136 G. Bergounioux, L’orientalisme et la linguistique. Entre géographie, littérature et histoire, His-

toire, Epistémologie, Langage XXIII/2, 2001, p. 39–57.
137 E.-R. Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, Discours de M. Laboulaye, membre de l’Institut, administrateur du
Collège de France, in: Institut de France (scienti¿c ed.), Discours de M. Alfred Maury, président, pro-
noncé aux funérailles de M. Jules Mohl, membre de l’Académie, le 5 janvier 1876, Paris 1876, p. 7.
138 The ¿rst endeavours to introduce Sanskrit and comparative grammar in French academic instruc-
139 J. Mohl, Vingt-sept ans d’histoire des études orientales: rapports faits à la Société asiatique de
Paris de 1840 à 1867 par Jules Mohl, vol. II, Paris 1880, p. 286.
140 S. Delesalle/J.-C. Chevalier, La Linguistique, la Grammaire et l’Ecole, Paris 1986, p. 246–271.

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210 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

My audience is assiduous. The lecture theatre is always full and (what is more
signi¿cant), the same people come back every time. I hope to manage making
them take the Àoor, which means that starting next semester, I will prompt them
to carry out the etymological and grammatical analysis of a text by themselves.
With the students of Ecole Normale, I am holding an introductory class. They
must imperatively start now, even if they don’t feel like it, because I will be
part of their examination jury. However, I do not need to pressure them. This
new food is fully to their liking.௘141

Comparative grammar could not be approached merely as a subject that inspired Àeet-
ing curiosity; it required at least some elementary training. Bréal’s efforts seem to have
been successful, because a few years later, in 1870, in a letter to Weber he wrote that
he was delighted to see the strong interest that comparative grammar aroused.௘142
After the 1866 victory that enabled Prussia to considerably enlarge its territory,
certain French scholars related its military superiority to the scienti¿c advance of its
universities.௘143 However, little came out of this acknowledgement. After 1870, the
French defeat heightened this feeling and the French government took a close inter-
est in the German model.௘144 Being open to works coming from abroad, more spe-
cially Germany, became the necessary condition to achieve the scienti¿c ambitions
of the French nation. The attitude of the directors of the Revue critique was repre-
sentative of this interweaving between nationalistic aim and international perspec-
tive. Indeed, while they proclaimed that there was only “one history, one critique,
one erudition”, they immediately added that they were convinced that “working for
science without any preoccupation of nationality, religion or party [was] also, in a
highly effective way, working for one’s homeland”.௘145 The scholarship holders sent to
Germany by the French government in the 1880s–1980s had to write a report on the
state of higher education in Germany. This shows how German science was perceived
as crucial.
This atmosphere contributed to certain improvements when it came to teaching
comparative grammar and Sanskrit in France. In 1877, Bergaigne obtained a position
as lecturer in Sanskrit and comparative grammar at the Sorbonne, which became a
professor’s chair in 1885. In Lyon, a post of lecturer in the same disciplines was cre-
ated in 1875, which also was turned into a chair in 1886. That same year, Indology
entered the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in the 5th section, devoted to religious
sciences. As early as the mid-1870s, Auguste Barth, an Indologist of Alsatian origin
who had settled in France following the annexation of Alsace by Germany, remarked

141 StaBi, Slg. Darmstadt 2b 1863 (22) Bréal, Bl. 17–18, Bréal to Weber (Paris, February 18, 1866).
142 Ibid., Bl. 25–56, Bréal to Weber (Paris, May 4, 1870).
143 Ibid., Bl. 19–20, Bréal to Weber (Paris, October 17, 1866).
144 C. Digeon, La Crise allemande de la pensée française: 1870–1914, Paris 1959, p. 364–383.
145 A nos lecteurs, Revue critique 1872/I, January 6, p. 2–3 and 1873/I, January 4, 1873, p. 5.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 211

that the scienti¿c nature of the philological ¿eld had greatly increased.௘146 He wrote to
I have informed you, I believe, of my ¿rst impressions of today’s Paris. I can
only con¿rm them. There is truly a new life in teaching, here. […] A whole
generation of linguists was or is being trained using Bréal’s lectures. Bergaigne
holds an excellent course in Sanskrit and Darmesteter brilliantly teaches Zend.
It is so different from how things were done ¿fteen years ago! I really regret
that my poor hearing does not allow me to follow all this closely. […] Another
regret, not for my own self but for everybody, is the poor material installation
that people have to content with at the moment. At the Ecole des Hautes Etudes,
classes are held in totally inadequate premises, an outbuilding of the Sorbonne
library, where professors, lectures and auditors are crammed all at once, at the
same tables. It is magni¿cent as far as hospitality is concerned, because just
about everyone is let in, yet it is very embarrassing for whoever has scruples
about disturbing other people. I am ashamed [sic] to use the Ecole’s library,
although it is more or less the only place where one can ¿nd a fairly exhaustive
collection of scholarly journals. I always blame myself for occupying the space
of a student. Fortunately, things will change. The Sorbonne will be enlarged.
But until then, we will have to take solace in another proverb, es gehen viel
geduldige Schafe in einen Stall.௘147 (You can ¿t a lot of patient sheep in a barn)
This description gives a good account of both the fruit of Bréal’s actions and the sig-
ni¿cant number of people gravitating around the ¿eld of Sanskrit and comparative
grammar from then on. At the same time, it highlights the fact that a large part of this
progress was achieved in institutions outside of the university, and that the govern-
ment’s efforts did not exceed a certain ¿nancial limit.௘148

A Critical Transfer: Comparativism Revisited

Although the philologists who conveyed the German model were connected through
their common discipline, they nevertheless retained their own irreducible singularities,
which depended on their respective socialization on the religious, family and profes-
sional planes. In Bréal’s case, in spite of the nationalistic and anti-Semitic attacks
he was subject to, the fact that he belonged to both German and French culture was
favourable to him. It helped him in his efforts to introduce comparative grammar on
French soil. Bréal was aware of the gap that separated this approach to languages and

146 Barth wrote to Weber: “I believe I can bring the news to you: here, we are busy seriously intro-
ducing the study of Sanskrit and comparative philology in our provincial universities.” (StaBi
2b 1877 [30] Barth, Barth to Weber, Geneva, October 6, 1876)
147 StaBi 2, 1877 (30) Barth, Barth to Weber (February 9, 1878).
148 However, this was not speci¿c to France. In Germany, when Indologists and comparativists
requested seminars for their disciplines, they often had to wait for many years before obtaining
satisfaction. Despite the ongoing policy of promoting comparative grammar, the government
was reticent to unfreeze the corresponding budget.

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212 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

the French discourse on the same subject. He therefore adapted German philological
forms to the French context, convinced that, strategically, this approach was neces-
sary. In 1867, whilst he was in the midst of the translation of Bopp’s Vergleichende
Grammatik, he told Weber that he was “working on the preface for Bopp’s second
volume, because if certain questions were not explained, the book would be a little to
dry and hard for French taste.”௘149 This ambition to “naturalise” comparative grammar
in France implied substantial work on both the tone and the conceptual content of the
discursive reasoning.௘150 Bréal was convinced that this French and German encounter
would bear fruit:
For comparative philology௘151 itself, it is desirable that soon it be adopted and
cultivated amongst us. It has been said that France gives to ideas the turn that
completes them and the imprint that makes them welcome everywhere. Com-
parative grammar should take its well-deserved place in any kind of liberal
education and gain access to enlightened intelligences in every country. For
that, it needs the French mind to apply to it the rare and precious qualities that
have been the necessary accompaniment and distinctive mark of erudition in
our country, from Henri Estienne to Eugène Burnouf. In taking part in these
studies, France will spread them the world over. At the same time, we will draw
the sundry of information that comparative grammar holds in reserve and bring
it to light thanks to our practical eye – undisputed abroad – for classifying and
setting up materials. Once the science of language has taken root amongst us, it
will bear fruit giving evidence of the generous soil where it was transplanted.௘152
In practical terms, in the adapted version of the comparative grammar that he proposed
undertaking, Bréal complemented Bopp’s approach with Grimm’s phonetic discover-
ies. He also insisted on diachrony, placed the phonetic evolutions thus brought to light
in a larger context and – in keeping with the French tradition – explained them in
terms of communication, and even sociology.௘153 He went back to certain key concepts
of German philological thought, notably the universal value of the laws of phonetic
mutation, af¿rming that they still only concerned one language. Furthermore, he was
opposed to Bopp’s tendencies to use Sanskrit as the paradigm of the perfect language
and to consider that the differences observed between Latin and Greek languages and
Sanskrit necessarily meant loss or decline.௘154

149 StaBi Slg. Darmstadt 2b 1863 (22) Bréal, Bl. 21–22, Bréal to Weber (Paris, March 27, 1867).
150 M. Bréal, De la méthode comparative appliquée à l’étude des langues. Leçon d’ouverture du cours de
grammaire comparée au Collège de France par Michel Bréal, chargé de ce cours, Paris 1864, p. 290.
151 One should note the concurrent use of the terms “comparative philology” and “comparative
grammar” in France.
152 Bréal, Grammaire comparée, p. VII.
153 W. Thielemann, Franz Bopp – Rückwirkung nach Frankreich: Michel Bréal – Schüler, Überset-
zer, Kritiker, in: R. Sternemann (ed.), Bopp-Symposium 1992 der Humboldt-Universität Berlin,
Heidelberg 1994, p. 291–292.
154 Ibid., p. 287 and 293.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 213

Perfectly aware of his role as a go-between, Bréal used the opportunity provided
by the transfer of comparative grammar to France to contribute a number of correc-
tives. For instance, as Burnouf had done before him, he was opposed to the attempts
at going back to the roots that made up the hypothetical Indo-European language. His
other linchpin, philology “à la française”, enabled him to adopt a distanced attitude
towards the science he had decided to import. That his interest progressively shifted
towards semantics clearly indicates that he looked critically at comparative grammar.
Nevertheless, establishing the latter in France was a priority in the 1860s, and Bréal
viewed with much suspicion the critical discourse of other philologists who, thanks
their German origins, could speak with authority about comparative grammar while
at the same time taking this opportunity to pass off critical messages about it. Fearing
that it could harm his own enterprise, he complained to Weber:
[…] it seems to me that to some extent, Mr Oppert, who wearies everyone here,
has ruined the situation for foreigners. I am enclosing a sample of his inaugural
lecture this year. From this announcement that he put in all the journals, you
will be able to infer the content of his discourse. Since the day when he was not
promoted to the rank of a representative of the comparative science of language
[vergleichende Sprachforschung], this science has lost all possible value. It is
absolutely unsuited to providing information on the origins of peoples, religion
or mythology. The Greeks were Semites who partly adopted an Indo-Germanic
language, as he will soon demonstrate (a promise he already made last year).
It would be just as disastrous for comparative grammar [vergleichende Gram-
matik] to be integrated into secondary school teachings, because this research
is still much too uncertain and Àuctuating. Numerous attacks have followed,
against Renan and others. The irony in all this is that in the past, for many years
he insistently solicited a chair at the Ecole normale (where secondary school
teachers are trained).௘155
Bréal’s exasperation was targeted towards the Orientalist Jules Oppert, a lecturer in
Sanskrit at the Imperial Library in 1857. Bréal attributed his colleague’s fury against
comparative grammar to his pique for not having been chosen to teach comparative
grammar at the Collège de France – a task that had been entrusted to Bréal in 1864 (as a
lecturer). This explanation falls a bit short. In his inaugural lecture given at the Imperial
Library for the year 1865, Oppert sharply attacked the “representatives of this short-
sighted philology” only preoccupied with Indo-European languages and disdainful of
Semitic languages.௘156 He was one of the German immigrants of Jewish faith who had
gone in France for want of ¿nding a position in Germany. Therefore, his exposing the
fact that Semitic languages were not taken into account is evidence of a de¿nite mal-
aise vis-à-vis the triumphant situation of Indo-European comparativism in Germany.

155 StaBi, Slg. Darmstadt 2b 1863 (22) Bréal, Bl. 15–16, Bréal to Weber (Paris, January 12, 1866).
156 J. Oppert, L’Aryanisme. Discours d’ouverture prononcé à la Bibliothèque impériale le 28 décem-
bre 1865, Paris 1866, p. 17.

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214 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

Stemming from a well-off Jewish family of scholars and ¿nanciers, Julius Oppert,
as he was named before he became a French citizen, did all his school and university
training in Germany. The major components of his intellectual itinerary concerned
Jewish and Oriental erudition. In Kiel, he defended his thesis on the judicial system
of the Indians in 1846. Afterwards, he studied archaeology with Welcker, Arabic with
Freytag, and Sanskrit with Lassen in Bonn, and then Greek with Boeckh and Sanskrit
with Bopp, in Berlin.௘157 At the end of his studies in Bonn, he won fame with a book he
published on the vocalic system of Persian. However, as a Jewish scholar, he was not
able to obtain a post at university. Compelled to choose between conversion and emi-
gration, he left for Paris, well intent on “looking for three things […] – a chair, a bed
and an armchair.”௘158 However, when he arrived, he had to content himself as a teacher
of German in secondary schools, in Laval and then Reims.௘159 Prompted by his ambi-
tion and drawing strength from his connections with the Parisian Orientalist milieus,
he nevertheless pursued his research. Renewing with the theme of his 1847 book – in
which he had managed to clear up many questions that were then pending when it
came to deciphering Persian cuneiform writing – he devoted his time to the cuneiform
writings of Assyria. The choice of this new domain, where everything remained to be
done, proved to be judicious. Oppert was selected to take part in the archaeological
mission undertaken by France in Lower Mesopotamia, and was rewarded for his work.
He was granted “letters of French citizenship” and obtained a chair in philology and
Assyrian archaeology at the Collège de France in 1869.௘160
During the decade between the archaeological mission in Mesopotamia and the
chair in Assyriology at the Collège de France, he was appointed professor of Sanskrit
at the Imperial Library, which at that time housed the Ecole nationale des langues
orientales vivantes. He devoted his inaugural lecture on “General consideration on
the comparative philology of Indo-European languages”.௘161 He demonstrated that San-
skrit should be studied not so much for its literature but rather to bene¿t comparative
grammar, and in addition he proudly retraced the stages of the foundation of this dis-
cipline by the German Romantic philologists.௘162 Yet his choice of Assyrian – a Semitic
language – can be explained by a desire he had already expressed during his training
years, of “transforming Judaism into a science.”௘163 Many of his books and articles were

157 Stache-Rosen, p. 81.

158 B. Haussoulier, Notice sur la vie et les œuvres de M. Jules Oppert par M. B. Haussoulier, membre
de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, lue dans la séance du 9 novembre 1906, Paris
1906, p. 24.
159 G. Oppert, Julius Oppert, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1906, p. 273.
160 G. Vapereau, Dictionnaire universel des contemporains, Paris 1865, p. 1252–1253; Haussoulier,
p. 24–25.
161 J. Oppert, Considérations générales sur la philologie comparée des langues indo-européennes.
Discours prononcé le 17 décembre 1857 à l’ouverture du Cours élémentaire de Sanscrit près la
Bibliothèque impériale, Paris 1858.
162 See also J. Oppert, Grammaire sanskrite, Paris/Berlin 1864, p. III–IV.
163 M. Espagne, Allemands et germanophones, p. 165.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 215

concerned with seeking a con¿rmation of the Bible chronology and facts in Assyrian
texts and chronology.
In the papers he devoted to comparative grammar, his argumentation also had
something to do with the faith he belonged to and his exposure to ostracism against the
Jewish community. Characterizing the methodological bases of comparative grammar
as de¿ned by Bopp, his master, he brought the practices of certain German philolo-
gists together under the term “Aryanism”. To him, these philologists strayed from
“absolute grammaticalism” as professed by Bopp௘164 and used “the common origin of
languages to draw certain conclusions regarding the origin of nations and the nature
of their faiths.”௘165 Oppert more speci¿cally denounced the genealogies that improp-
erly and arbitrarily made certain peoples the descendants of the Aryas. He objected
that in most cases the idioms studied could not be related for certain to a hypothetical
mother language, that given migrations and invasions, some peoples could have ad-
opted an idiom that was not theirs originally. The correspondence between language
and race was thus far from discernable.௘166 Irritated by the tendency to spotlight the
Indo-European ensemble to the detriment of the Semitic ensemble, Oppert asserted
that, even though the Greek language was Indo-European, the Greek people belonged
to the Semitic ensemble.௘167
These standpoints gave rise to many objections. Whitney condemned Oppert for
heaping opprobrium on the whole philologist community even though the “Aryanist”
attitude he denounced only concerned a few “super¿cial dreamers”.௘168 He also criti-
cised him for replicating, in the domain of Semitic languages, the excesses that he
had condemned about Indo-European languages. For him, Oppert, a “Semite by birth”
and a “professor of Indo-European languages,” aimed to counter the attacks of Ernest
Renan, an “Indo-European” and a “professor of Semitic philology”, against the Jewish
culture.௘169 Indeed, a bitter quarrel opposed both men about whether Assyrian belonged
to the Semitic family – a thesis that Oppert defended and that Renan fought against.
In this controversy, there was undeniably an affective relation to the Jewish language
and culture, each of both scholars claiming to have the “true sentiment” about Semitic
Oppert’s efforts to offset “Aryanist” tendencies incurred very hostile feelings to-
wards him from some of his colleagues, who – erroneously – saw his stance as purely

164 J. Oppert, L’aryanisme, p. 7.

165 Ibid., p. 8.
166 Ibid., p. 23.
167 This is what Bréal was alluding to in his letter to Weber, as quoted above.
168 W. D. Whitney, Key and Oppert on Indo-Aryan Philology, Journal of the American Oriental
Society, October 1867, p. 537.
169 Ibid., p. 545.
170 E. Renan, Expédition scienti¿que en Mésopotamie, by M. Oppert, vol. II, Journal des savants,
March 1859, p. 165–168; April 1859, p. 244–260; June 1859, p. 360–368; J. Oppert, Réponse
à un article critique de M. Ernest Renan, par Jules Oppert, excerpt 11 of the Revue orientale et
américaine, Paris 1859.

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216 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

and simply promoting Judaism. Yet, Oppert made strong attempts to minimise the
excessive role that some scholars granted to the Jewish language and culture. For
instance, he was opposed to those who claimed that all languages derived from He-
brew.௘171 Furthermore, it should be speci¿ed that he was not the only German philolo-
gist of Jewish origin to devote the major part of his research to the Semitic domain. In
contrast, the French Jewish philologists, most of whom were agnostic, rather tended
to specialise in the Indo-Iranian ¿eld.௘172 Oppert’s intellectual path was representative
of the German Jewish philologists who had emigrated to France. They were ready to
exercise their competence in comparative grammar, inasmuch as it appeared as their
speci¿c expertise, but they preferred to turn towards Semitic studies. This was a sign
that to them, Indo-European comparativism – so prevailing in Germany – was asso-
ciated with the traumatic experience of ostracism, which they were victims of in the
academic system of their homeland.
Comparative grammar revealed the de¿ciencies of the French academic system –
perceived as outdated – and its introduction in France was one of the key issues for the
supporters of a reform of higher education in France. All this demonstrates that this
discipline had become the symbol of scienti¿c modernity. In the end, the popularity
it had reached in the 1870s in Germany made people lose sight of what was its prime
objective: to put linguistic diversity in order and to explain both the resemblances
between languages and the progressive differentiation of related languages. Charged
with a racial content by the specialists of physical anthropology, the idea of an original
Indo-European people replaced the chieÀy-ethnographic approach of philologists with
an approach based primarily on identifying races according to physical criteria. Phi-
lologists had insisted on presenting Indo-European origins in an idyllic light, professing
the intellectual and moral superiority of the Indo-European family and contrasting the
pale, noble ancient Aryans with both the native Indians and the decadent Brahmans
of modern days. This proved to be highly dangerous. Once it was hypostatised as a
racial category, the original “Indo-Germanic people” was placed above others in a
hierarchy whose nature was essential and de¿nitive. This issue extended beyond the
framework of Germany. It was actually in France that the use of the term “Aryan” be-
came most popular, notably through the works of Georges Vacher de Lapouge.௘173 Even

171 J. Oppert, Remarque sur les caractères distinctifs des différentes familles linguistiques, extrait
de la Revue de l’Orient (de l’Algérie et des Colonies), Paris 1860, p. 11.
172 G. Bergounioux, “Aryen”, “indo-européen” et “sémite” dans l’université française, Histoire,
Epistémologie, Langage XVIII/1, 1996, p. 109–126.
173 Sieferle, p. 466, n.112, notes that only two German dictionaries gave a racial de¿nition of Arier:
the 1875 edition of the Brockhaus and the 1888 edition of the Meyer dictionaries. Furthermore,
they limited its usage to the Ost-Indogermanen. The book by G. Vacher de Lapouge that was
most instrumental in popularising the racial use of “Aryan” in France dates from 1899: L’Aryen,
son rôle social. In the context of the Dreyfus Affair, this term acquired an anti-Semitic dimen-
sion for him. In Germany, it was mostly the authors of mass literature gravitating around Richard
Wagner (notably Ludwig Schermann and Houston Stuart Chamberlain) who started using “Arian”
in a racial sense as of the turn of the century.

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The Good and Bad Fortunes of Indo-european Comparativism 217

though philologists had explicitly dissociated themselves from the works carried out
by specialists in physical anthropology, and even though the physical anthropology
specialists’ attempts to compare linguistic typologies with racial ones only started to
take an anti-Semitic turn at the very end of the century, linguistic comparisons were
always applied to Indo-European languages. Furthermore, Sanskrit was still perceived
by many scholars as the archetype of linguistic purity. For this reason, Jewish scholars
in Germany had cause to worry. For that matter, extending the comparative method to
the study of religions had already served to demonstrate the existence of a tendency
toward monotheism among the Indo-European family. Until then, this quality had been
acknowledged as the privilege of “Semitism”.
Carried out in great part by Jewish philologists, the transfer of comparative gram-
mar from Germany to France bore the mark of the refusal of the speci¿c character of
German investigations on Indo-European languages. In the last resort, the problem thus
raised directly concerned the manner in which Sanskrit was approached in Germany.
Indeed, the link that was systematically established between comparative grammar and
Indology prevented comparative grammar to be extended to other domains of study.
Was it possible and advisable to dissociate these two disciplines? Were India and its
language valued for themselves or for what they revealed about the Indo-European
family? Finally, to what extent could they be used to serve a form of comparativism
concerned with humanity as a whole and no longer a single family? Until 1914, the
question of whether and how to extend Indological studies was to be at the heart of
this discipline’s history.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale

To me, also, the Veda and Vedic religion seem really

and truly “Indian”. However, this is precisely the rea-
son why we must not separate them from the histori-
cal relationships in which the Indian being, and more
precisely the most ancient Indian being, is implied. In
close relation to the Iranian tradition, in looser relation
to the rest of the Indo-European tradition, and espe-
cially in its right place with regard to the universal eth-
nic strata whose remains rise to the surface everywhere.

Hermann Oldenberg, Vedaforschung, 1905.௘1

Indians, Indo-Iranians, Indo-Europeans or simply universal: at the dawn of the 20th

century, the traits that the Indologist Hermann Oldenberg attributed to Vedism reveal a
multiplication of perspectives in relation to the viewpoint adopted by his predecessors.
Indeed, to them the Vedas were simply and unquestionably the documents that were
closest to the primeval, authentic Indo-European state of being. However, it seems
that in his insistence on the relative and non exclusive value of this stance, Oldenberg
was not an isolated case. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, his colleague Leo-
pold von Schröder, from Innsbruck, also noted a renewal of the relationships between
Sanskrit and comparative grammar.௘2 According to his periodisation of the history of
Indology in Europe, scholars concentrated on classical Sanskrit literature until the
1840s, when the Vedic corpus started to mobilise their attention. Thanks to the paral-
lel development of Buddhist and Jain studies, a true “boom of Indological research”
went on until the end of the 19th century. Comparative grammar was not exempt from
his analysis; however he observed that it underwent a serious crisis, starting in the
1870s. Indeed, the results of this science gave rise to “a movement of scepticism” and
an “aspiration for more accuracy in dealing with speci¿c problems”, notably when it
came to phonetic laws. Beyond these technical aspects, he identi¿ed a certain amount
of mistrust concerning the very principle of Indo-European comparativism. This es-
pecially concerned the mythological ¿eld, blamed for having produced works that
were too speculative, to the point that some scholars requested that this perspective
be purely and simply abandoned. Schröder was seeking a way out by calling for the

1 H. Oldenberg, Vedaforschung, Stuttgart/Berlin 1905, p. 88.

2 L. von Schröder, Über die Entwicklung der Indologie in Europa, Mittheilungen der anthropolo-
gischen Gesellschaft in Wien, vol. XXV, Vienna 1895, p. 1–8.

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220 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

happy medium – an indication of the multiplication of the viewpoints on the status that
should be granted to Indo-European comparativism at a time when Indologists were
somewhat overwhelmed by its success.
The question of the link between Sanskrit studies and Indo-European comparativ-
ism in the last decades of the 19th century must be envisaged with all the more nuances
because the generation of the great masters – Müller, Roth, Weber, born in the 1820s –
was still active, alongside that of such Indologists as Oldenberg and Schröder. Born
in the 1850s, the latter had studied under the aegis of the former in the 1870s. In this
bustling context, the issue of the discipline’s future arose with sharp acuity on both the
epistemological and institutional planes. The proposal that the systematic association
of Sanskrit and comparative grammar should be abandoned came into conÀict with
the policy of combining these two disciplines, initiated by the Prussian government.
Furthermore, it boiled down to depriving Indology of what until then had always been
presented as the basis for its scienti¿c interest and legitimacy. Questioning the he-
gemony of Indo-European comparativism meant that Indologists had to reinvent the
interest of their studies and establish them on new methodological bases. Such was
the twofold challenge they set out to take up at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Returning India to the Indians”

The New Veda by Abel Bergaigne

The transfer of comparative grammar from Germany to France did not go smoothly nor
without some reconsideration. This was even more the case with the reception reserved
for mythology. This domain was decidedly the subject of many controversies. Even in
Germany, Müller’s work had given rise to strong protest. It was attacked for its ety-
mologies, considered as hazardous, as well as for his obstinacy in having Vedic gods
deriving from sun myths and for his theory on the “disease of language”, on which his
understanding of mythology depended. Despite all this, seen from France the interest
for comparative mythology was perceived as one characteristic of the German school.
In France, as early as the 1870s Indo-European comparativism was dissociated from
any ethnographic or cultural perspective and only envisaged from a linguistic aspect.
Professors turned away from comparative mythology and speculations on the origin of
the roots and names of Indo-European gods. The reason for this is probably that the com-
parative grammar of Indo-European languages was exercised by Jewish scholars, atten-
tive to maintain a secular attitude as well as to mark a clear distance from “Aryanism”.
This way, the most enthusiastic followers of comparative mythology remained margin-
alised and held in low regard by their colleagues. Such was the case with Paul Regnaud,
a professor of Sanskrit and comparative grammar at the University of Lyon, where he
obtained a chair in 1886, teaching these subjects since 1875.௘3 The situation of compara-
tive mythology was all the more precarious because it was approached from a fairly

3 G. Bergounioux, “Aryen,” “indo-européen” et “sémite”, p. 114 s. See, for instance, Barth to Weber
(Paris, February 9, 1878): “Regnaud is a very estimable, industrious man, but who only belatedly

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 221

critical stance, even by those who were trying to introduce it in France. For instance,
Renan, who was behind the Essai de mythologie comparée, the French translation of
Müller’s book, in 1859, was far from sharing the latter’s views concerning the respective
characteristics of Indo-European and Semitic mythologies. As for Bréal, the author of
Mélanges de mythologie et de linguistique௘4 in 1877, he based himself to a great extent
on Müller’s works, making his own the idea of primitive, natural mythology and the
theory of the disease of language.௘5 But he differed from Müller in that he had reserva-
tions about the endeavour to reconstruct the language and culture of the Indo-European
world of the origins.௘6 In the end, he even distanced himself from the specialists in
comparative mythology, who according to him were more “poets” than “researchers”.௘7
Starting with his inaugural speech in 1833, Burnouf had warned against attempts at
reconstructing historical stages for which there were no documents, and against plac-
ing blind faith in the powers of etymology. A few decades later, this concern remained
central in the works of French philologists. It found a special echo in the works relative
to Sanskrit of Abel Bergaigne, a former student of Bréal and Eugène-Louis Hauvette-
Besnault (the assistant director for Sanskrit at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes,
as of 1877). Successively a junior lecturer in Sanskrit (Sorbonne, 1868), a tutor in
Sanskrit (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes from its creation date in 1868), a senior
lecturer at the Ecole Pratique (1877) and then a professor of Sanskrit and comparative
grammar at the Sorbonne (1886), Bergaigne specialised in Vedic studies. However, he
refused to read the Vedas through the prism of Indo-European comparativism, which
prompted him to completely renew his approach to them. Before him, in Great Britain
the Indologist John Muir had already criticised the tendency to consider the ‫ۿ‬gveda as
a document only for the use of comparative grammar. He had implemented a method
that consisted in ¿rst and foremost comparing it with other writings from the Vedic age
and only afterwards applying Indo-European comparativism.௘8 Bergaigne toughened
this approach, asserting that it was necessary to dissociate Indology and comparative
grammar. When his post at the Sorbonne was transformed into a chair (1886), he gave
his inaugural lecture on the theme “The Place of Sanskrit and the Comparative Gram-
mar of Indo-European Languages in Academic Education”.௘9 Comparative grammar

started truly scienti¿c studies & [sic] I am afraid that for a long time he will feel the effects of his
dilettante habits and some lack of rigour and method.” (StaBi 2b 1877 [30] Barth).
4 M. Bréal, Mélanges de mythologie et de linguistique, Paris 1877.
5 See the two ¿rst chapters in M. Bréal, Mélanges de mythologie et de linguistique, p. 1–162 (“Her-
cules et Cacus. Etude de mythologie”) and p. 163–186 (“Le mythe d’Œdipe”).
6 F. Laplanche, Philologie et histoire des religions en France au XIXe siècle, in: J. Baubérot, J. Bé-
guin et alii (eds.), Cent ans de sciences religieuses en France, Paris 1987, p. 43; M. Bréal, Max
Müller, extrait de Bulletin de la société de linguistique de Paris XLIX, Chartres 1901.
7 Ibid., p. 375–412 (the chapter on Indo-European roots).
8 J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts (on the origin and history of the people of India, their religion
and institutions). Vol. 5: Contributions to a Knowledge of the Cosmogony, Mythology, Religious
Ideas, Life and Manners of the Indians in the Vedic Age, London 1872.
9 A. Bergaigne, La place du Sanskrit et de la grammaire comparée dans l’enseignement univer-
sitaire français. Leçon d’ouverture du cours de sanskrit et de grammaire comparée des langues

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222 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

could shed light on the relationships between Latin and Greek and improve the study
of morphology, using the discovery of phonetic laws. On the other hand, according
to him it was impossible to discover “the nature and primitive meaning of desinential
syllables” or the characteristics of the original Indo-European language. In the same
line of thinking he demonstrated the fundamental role of the discovery of Sanskrit in
establishing comparative grammar. However, he then declared that he wanted to limit
his lecture in comparative grammar to the study of the Latin and Greek languages.
Knowing from experience that few students were ready to take an introductory course
in Sanskrit, he said that he preferred to con¿ne himself to Latin and Greek forms so
that he would not hear students distorting Sanskrit forms they could not master.௘10 In
doing so, he exposed the fact that Sanskrit was no longer necessary for the compara-
tive study of languages.
Even though it was justi¿ed by a pragmatic argument, the choice – furthermore
coming from an Indologist – of excluding Sanskrit from comparative grammar repre-
sented an important move, establishing the base for new scienti¿c habits. In the year
that followed the death of Bergaigne in 1888, teachings in Sanskrit and comparative
grammar were separated at the Sorbonne, and respectively entrusted to two of his for-
mer students: Sylvain Lévi for Sanskrit and Victor Henry for comparative grammar.
This event was hailed as “the de¿nitive emancipation from Indology” and its “bond-
age” to comparative grammar. This evolution Lévi expressly attributed to Bergaigne’s
act.௘11 He suggested that in dissociating both disciplines, the latter had accomplished
a deed of intellectual militancy that went beyond the framework of simple practical
considerations. However, in his inaugural lecture in 1886, Bergaigne had said that
he was convinced by linguistic comparativism as well as by the use of etymology
for ethnographic purposes. What intellectual reasons then prompted him to take up
the study of Indian culture independently from the tools provided by comparativism?
When it came to his prime motivation, his colleagues were unanimous: he wanted to
keep at bay the much too idyllic representations of the Vedic times and the social state
they were supposed to reÀect, as German Indologists had conveyed them. Therefore
everybody agreed in presenting his writings as works that severed these ties. Bréal
did not have second thoughts about considering this as a “revolution”, “one of the
brightest applications of critique in the sense that the word [has] taken on in history
and philology since Frédéric-Auguste Wolf et D. Fr. Strauss. Sylvain Lévi, for his
part, thought that his master had managed to “quarrel openly with biases that were no
longer questioned.”௘12

indo-européennes à la Faculté des lettres de Paris, excerpt from the Revue internationale de
l’enseignement, February 15, 1886, Paris 1903.
10 Ibid., p. 15–17.
11 S. Lévi, Abel Bergaigne et l’indianisme, in: L. Renou (ed.), Mémorial Sylvain Lévi, Paris 1957, p. 3.
12 Ibid., p. 5–6; M. Bréal, A la mémoire de Abel Henri Joseph Bergaigne, […] né […] le 31 août
1838, mort […] le 6 août 1888, discours de M. … Michel Bréal, Académie des Inscriptions et
Belles Lettres, Paris, vol. 1, p. 13–18

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 223

Amongst Bergaigne’s numerous volumes devoted to Vedism, La Religion védique

d’après les hymnes du Rigveda௘13 (1878–1883) enables us to take the measure of his
programme. In order to escape the presuppositions biasing the understanding of the
‫ۿ‬gveda, Bergaigne advocated that one should work by a process of internal compari-
sons and that elements liable to shed light on its dif¿cult passages should be drawn
from the ‫ۿ‬gveda itself. For instance, when it came to seeking the meaning of a Vedic
terms, rather than retracing their etymology by comparing them with their equivalent in
other Indo-European languages, he suggested that all occurrences of these same terms
in the ‫ۿ‬gveda be compared in order for the context to shed light on their meaning. Like-
wise, as far as mythological analysis was concerned, the rule was to only look within
the ‫ۿ‬gveda for the keys to interpret the Vedic religion, which was a closed “system”.௘14
Inasmuch as this corpus contained numerous liturgical hymns, his principle of inter-
nal analysis led Bergaigne to envisage mythology in close connection with faith. It
emerged from this that the Vedic form of worship aimed to be an exact reproduction of
natural phenomena. Bergaigne identi¿ed two categories of worship: the ¿rst ones, asso-
ciated with sunrise, bought into play the male element “sun” or “sky” and the female el-
ement “dawn” or “earth”, and their function was to produce light, i. e. dawn, freed from
the night. The second category, on the other hand, was related to the terrestrial world,
and to rainfall; its role was to bring rain, to produce storms. Gods – Agni, for instance,
representing ¿re – blended with the elements at work in the sacri¿ce (by oblation
through ¿re). They were themselves in a relationship of identity with, and not simply
imitation of, natural phenomena (¿re, lightning). Consequently, the cult reproduced
natural phenomena, but the natural phenomena were already intrinsically a sacri¿ce.௘15
At the end of his analysis, Bergaigne gave a more elaborate image of the ‫ۿ‬gveda
than his German colleagues, who had continuously presented it as an uncomplicated
text, the fruit of natural, spontaneous poetry. Bergaigne applied himself to decipher-
ing a complex system of connections between the levels of symbols, nature and ritu-
als, and between male and female elements present in the different faiths. According
to him, German Indologists, and especially Roth, multiplied the meanings of words
to solve the obscure images presented in certain hymns, in order to ¿nd a clear and
simple text. Opposed to this method, he recommended that only a limited number of
meanings be attributed to each word, so as to retain the characteristic paradoxes of
Vedic rhetoric. The plainness concerned the vocabulary, not the text. The networks of
correspondences between the gods, nature and the worship brought into play a true
mythological “arithmetic”௘16 – which indicated that the ‫ۿ‬gveda was the elaborate prod-
uct of the rhetoric of very erudite priests.

13 A. Bergaigne, La Religion védique d’après les hymnes du Rigveda, Paris 1878–1897, 4 vol. The
¿rst three volumes are by Bergaigne. The fourth one, published after his death, was an index
compiled by Maurice Bloom¿eld.
14 Ibid., vol. I, p. I–III.
15 Ibid., p. XI; Renou, Les Maîtres, p. 27; Dandekar, p. 18.
16 Bergaigne, La religion védique, vol. I, p. XV.

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224 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

The New generation of German Indology

In adopting this stance, Bergaigne was particularly aiming at the enthusiastic pioneers
of Vedic studies: Roth, Müller, Weber, Benfey.௘17 Yet at the very moment he published
his work, a combination of several factors brought about new developments for the
situation of Indology in Germany. The signi¿cant increase of knowledge on the vari-
ous Indo-European languages made it more and more dif¿cult to carry out in-depth
work on Indian culture and comparative grammar at the same time. The latter was
more and more often practised by linguistic specialists. On the other hand, Indologists
with an interest in Indian culture, who had until then always integrated the results of
comparative grammar, were not necessarily familiar with the last developments in
this discipline.௘18 Reciprocally, the progress accomplished in the study of the Vedas
revealed their complexity and discouraged specialists in comparative grammar.௘19 The
link between linguistic comparativism and Sanskrit studies, which had been so close,
gradually slackened – all the more so since the students who took introductory courses
came from various backgrounds. This trend intensi¿ed as of the mid 1870s, when the
school of neogrammarians came about in Leipzig. They copied the approach adopted
by the sciences of nature and considered that it was highly important to seek the pho-
netic laws behind the evolution of languages and to reveal absolute regularities. Neo-
grammarians gave prime of place to the historical perspective. Considering that the
modern condition of languages had to be studied ¿rst, in order to shed light on anterior
linguistic stages Karl Brugmann, Berthold Delbrück, Hermann Osthoff and Hermann
Paul relativised the importance of Sanskrit.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the antinomy between the holistic ideal of
the Bildung and the reality of specialised knowledge brought with it a feeling of frustra-
tion. Specialisation implied choosing a speci¿c ¿eld of studies, yet a single individual
could not gain complete command of this speci¿c ¿eld. Supposedly the place of intel-
lectual blossoming par excellence, philology was Àooded with technical approaches.
It thus mainly operated as a mere control authority certifying the authenticity of the
various versions of a given text, to the detriment of the hermeneutical approach. There

17 Writing to Weber in April 1877, Bergaigne announced that he had defended his doctorate and
that he wanted to publish his work under the title “The Vedic Religion”. He thus commented on
his own work: “whatever the fate of the book’s general conclusions, I hope that at least it will
contribute to furthering the interpretation of some points in the text. I also hope that it will bring
attention back to one characteristic of the Rig-Veda that I think the German school has too often
lost sight of: it is a liturgical book where speculations on the somehow magical effectiveness of
sacri¿ce have an important place.” (StaBi 2b 1879 [32] Bergaigne, Abel, Bergaigne to Weber,
Paris, April 20, 1877).
18 In 1881, at the request of his students, Richard Pischel, an Ordinarius in Sanskrit and compara-
tive grammar in Kiel, had to go back to teaching comparative grammar, which he had failed to
do earlier. (StaBi 2b 1877 [30]: Pischel to Weber, Kiel, November 26, 1881). He noted “Such
a radical turn has taken place in the domain of comparative grammar that there is almost
nothing that I can take up again from my former notebook, and I must do my lecture all over
19 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 418.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 225

was a similar, or even greater problem when it came to Indology. Applying comparative
grammar to the study of Indian writings had served to contribute to a general overview
by placing Indian culture within a larger, Indo-European context. However, the increas-
ingly technical nature of comparative grammar produced the opposite effect. Even
more deeply than in other disciplines, Indologists were confronted with the issue of the
division into detailed examinations and the resulting depletion from endless dissections
of linguistic roots. The renewal of generations furthered this criticism of traditional In-
dological practices. As was the case with their colleagues of the neogrammarian school,
the new Indologists who entered the scene were born in the 1840s–1850s, i. e. when
their masters had already started their own careers. They were all the more numerous
and quali¿ed since Indology had professionalised and Indian studies had become a
full-Àedged degree course. Among these scholars there were many future Ordinarien,
holders of chairs in Indology in all the German universities as of the 1880s: Richard
Pischel, Julius Jolly, Hermann Jacobi, Theodor Zachariae, Leopold von Schröder, Karl
Geldner, Alfred Hillebrandt, Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Garbe. This new genera-
tion was completing its training at the very moment when university began to suffer
from the more pragmatic and utilitarian education policy of the Reich, and from the
fact that research was getting bogged down into detailed studies. Hence there was a
growing discrepancy between the government’s will to associate comparative gram-
mar and Sanskrit studies and the need to get back to assembling the puzzle of Indian
culture, as was maintained by Indologists of the new generation.
While all Indologists of the same generation were far from sharing the same posi-
tions, tension between generations was furthered in the late 19th century by the in-
creasing number of teachers, necessitated by the increasing number of students. Among
these teachers, the proportion of ordinary professors decreased to the bene¿t of extraor-
dinary professors as well as a number of Privatdozenten short of positions.௘20 This laid
the groundwork for the emergence of new domains, because extraordinary professors
and Privatdozenten had more leeway to explore new centres of interest than those
professors with a chair. In Indology, they extended the discipline to concerns other
than Vedic and Sanskrit literature. For instance, the study of Buddhism and the Pali
language was introduced in Berlin by Oldenberg, who was a Privatdozent and then an
extraordinary professor.௘21 However, given their large number, Privatdozenten were in
¿erce competition to obtain a post or even to attract students to their lectures. Hence-
forth, there were two possible strategies. They could count on the help of a “mandarin”
and comply to the demands of these potential patrons to obtain their support when they

20 Between 1880 and 1906, the number of students in the universities of the Reich went from 21.000
to 46.000, while the number of ordinary professors remained almost stable – an indication that
courses were mainly ensured by the “unof¿cial university” (inof¿zielle Universität), i. e. Privat-
dozenten and extraordinary professors (T. Ellwein, Die Deutsche Universität vom Mittelalter bis
zur Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 131–136).
21 I. Sengupta, From Salon to Discipline, p. 105–111.

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226 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

applied for a post; or they could try attracting scienti¿c renown by surpassing their
masters, event if it meant questioning their methods or results.
A good example of this situation is to be found with Richard Pischel and Karl
Geldner, both of them Indologists in Halle, who published a series of articles in three
volumes, entitled Vedische Studien (Vedic Studies, 1889–1901).௘22 It was conceived as
a manifesto against the approach that envisaged the Veda as an Indo-European docu-
ment. With this publication, they started a virulent attack against the position adopted
by the Indologists of the preceding generation, their former masters. Pischel, whose
temperament was quite bold, had studied classical philology and Sanskrit in Breslau
with A. Fr. Stenzler. The latter had been trained in Bopp’s school and then won over
by “the philology of things” as promoted by A. W. Schlegel in Bonn. He was a great
expert when it came to the problems of text transmission and Prakrit dialects. In 1870,
in the continuation of his master Pischel presented a thesis devoted to the variants of
KƗlidƗsa’s famous play, ĝakuntalƗ. When the war started, he went to serve under the
Prussian Àag, but upon his return he resumed his course in Indology and went to further
his training in Berlin, attending Weber’s lectures. Also a former student of Stenzler,
Weber had looked into the recensions of ĝakuntalƗ. He helped Pischel to obtain a grant
from the Bopp foundation (Bopp Stiftung) to go to England and collect all available
manuscripts of this play. But the impetuous character of his student would soon express
itself. Admittedly, Pischel always retained deep respect for Stenzler, whom he con-
sidered as his “second father”, pursuing his tradition of studying the Prakrit dialect.௘23
However, he returned from England with enough self-con¿dence and knowledge to
assert – against Weber – that the Bengali variant of ĝakuntalƗ was the most reliable
and authentic one. As early as 1875, while he was still a Privatdozent in Breslau, he
published several articles on the subject. Their tone was highly virulent and naturally
Weber could only take offence, so that the two Indologists remained on bad terms for
several years. Later on, Geldner evoked this episode as a “revolt of David against
Goliath”, which fairly well summed up the audacity of his future collaborator.௘24 The

22 R. Pischel/K. Geldner, Vedische Studien, Stuttgart 1889–1901, 3 vol. The ¿rst part of the ¿rst
volume had already been published independently in 1888. The whole ¿rst volume was published
in 1889. The ¿rst part of the second volume was also published independently in 1892, before the
full second volume came out in 1897. The third volume was published in 1901.
23 Lebensbeschreibung Richard Pischels durch seinen Sohn Dr. Fritz Pischel (Be. Ak. Wiss. Nach-
lass Pischel Wb 47, typescript, p. 6–10). Also see StaBi 2b 1877 (30): Pischel to Weber (Breslau,
February 28, 1874): “I have a very close relationship with Professor Stenzler; he is my second
father. A few weeks ago, he gave me a totally unexpected gift, the ¿ve volumes of Max Mül-
ler’s ‫ۿ‬gveda, ‘because I needed it more than he did’.” Pischel was the author of a Grammatik
der PrƗkrit Sprachen which has been continually reprinted since it was ¿rst published in 1900.
Already in 1873–1874, he had devoted his Habilitation to the grammar of PrƗkrit languages. He
also won fame through his works on the language and culture of the Gypsies (Die Heimat der
Zigeuner, 1893; Beiträge zur Kenntnis der deutschen Zigeuner, 1894).
24 See the article written by Geldner in the pages of Frankfurter Zeitung dated January 15, 1909, on
the occasion of Pischel’s death.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 227

quarrel only ended in 1881 when Weber, who still had a good opinion of Pischel, went
to see him and offered to make peace.௘25 Pischel’s intrepidness paid off, or at least did
not harm his career: appointed Extraordinarius in Sanskrit and comparative grammar
in Kiel in 1875, he obtained an Ordinariat as early as 1877 and succeeded Pott in Halle
in 1885. He ended up his career in Berlin replacing Weber, according to the latter’s
wish. He was then pleased to declare that he had “reached the highest goal that a man
could reach in the corporation [of Indologists].”௘26
Karl Geldner’s career was totally different. After one year of studying Sanskrit and
Avestan in Leipzig with Brockhaus and Windisch, he left for Tübingen in 1872 and at-
tended Roth’s courses. Roth introduced him to Vedism and encouraged him to publish
a collection of translated hymns from the ৙gveda in collaboration with another student
of his, Adolf Kaegi.௘27 Geldner thus acquired the same double competency as Roth, on
India and ancient Persia. In 1878, he became Privatdozent at Tübingen University.
Roth entrusted him with the task of publishing the Avesta, which had ¿rst been pub-
lished by the Dane Westergaard in 1854. Yet it took more time to carry out this work
than Geldner had anticipated, because the number of Avestan manuscripts available in
Europe had considerably increased since the ¿rst edition.௘28 It was only in 1886 that the
¿rst volume was published, and the third and last came out in 1895. Geldner, who was
still a Privatdozent, expected to gain some institutional reward from this work. Since
he had not succeeded in being appointed Extraordinarius at the University of Tübingen,
he started to envisage other solutions. In 1886, as Roth was to take part in the Interna-
tional Congress of the Orientalists in Vienna, Geldner asked him to put in a word for
him with the Austrians in support of his application for an Extraordinarius in Sanskrit
at Innsbruck.௘29 Although modest, this request did not succeed either. Extremely bitter,
Geldner ended up turning to the University of Halle, where Pischel (who had met him
in Kiel a few years earlier) was delighted to see him arrive as a Privatdozent in 1887,
two years after he himself had been appointed there as an Ordinarius. This change of
university marked a turning point in his career. Once he became the holder of an Extra-
ordinariat created especially for him in 1890, he turned away from the Avesta to the
bene¿t of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. That same year, he was appointed in Berlin to replace Oldenberg,
and Pischel joined him there in 1902. Geldner ended his career as a full professor at
the University of Marburg. Apparently, that Pischel did not hesitate to rebel against
his masters’ generation in order to assert his scienti¿c views proved more pro¿table
than Geldner’s submissive attitude in the early days of his career.

25 Whitney to Weber (New Haven, November 17, 1875), StaBi 2b 1854 (18) Bl. 133–135: “I hope
that Pischel will justify the good opinion you have of his abilities and become a little more rea-
sonable.” About the reconciliation, see Lebensbeschreibung Richard Pischels, p. 22.
26 Ibid., p. 43–44.
27 K. Geldner/A. Kaegi, Siebenzig Lieder des Rigveda, Tübingen 1875.
28 E. Sieg, Karl Geldner in memoriam, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik VII/1, 1929, p. 2.
29 Geldner to Roth (Tübingen, August 26, 1886), UBT, Roth, Rudolf Md 765-3.

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228 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

The Indian Nature of the ৙gveda

Geldner’s arrival in Halle was to mark the beginning of a long cooperation between
both scholars, who shared a growing taste for Vedic literature. To Geldner, taking an
interest in this corpus was a means to distance himself from the Avestan domain that
Roth had assigned to him, while at the same time putting to good use the competencies
he had acquired through his joint publication of Vedic hymns with Adolf Kaegi. As for
Pischel, he had always closely followed Vedic studies and as early as the late 1870s he
had started to publish accounts about them in various journals. In 1879 and 1884, he
had devoted two articles to each volume of Bergaigne’s La Religion védique d’après
les hymnes du Rigveda. The general tone of both these reviews was quite negative.
Pischel declared straightaway that it would be vain to seek the keys to understand-
ing Vedism in this book by the French Indologist. According to him, Bergaigne had
unduly overlooked the difference between the most ancient and most recent hymns௘30
and, according to the “Vedic arithmetic” that he thought he had identi¿ed, had at-
tributed to some passages an allegorical signi¿cance that in reality they did not have.
Pischel also deemed that Bergaigne “caricatured” the poetry of the ৙gveda and that
in always drawing it towards abstraction and metaphors, he “deprived this text of its
inspiration”.௘31 This is why he declared that he “preferred to be in the wrong with Roth
and Grassman rather than understanding the Veda with Mr B[ergaigne].”௘32 In this
comparison, Rudolf Roth and Hermann Grassmann, who at that time were considered
as authorities when it came to Vedic studies in Germany, did not come out unharmed
either. A few lines above his statement, Pischel had made no bones about criticising
them, denouncing the “dominating interpretation of the Vedas”, which was to be un-
derstood as “arbitrary postulating interpolations and taking liberties to bring about
changes; endlessly suspecting text alterations; projecting notions and expressions onto
the Veda, that were totally foreign to the Indian mind; and showing extreme contempt
for tradition.”௘33 In spite of his criticism of Bergaigne, Pischel agreed with him on the
fact that one had to ¿ght against the commonly accepted interpretation of Vedism in
Germany, which consisted in arbitrarily projecting Indo-European ideologemes into
the ‫ۿ‬gveda.
All these accusations are to be found in the Preface to the ¿rst book of Vedische
Studien published in 1889. Geldner and Pischel thought that the “bases for the exegesis
of the ৙gveda [were] still very uncertain, and that the publication of Vedic texts […]
and indexes, though they admittedly added their contribution to this construction, were
far from completing it.”௘34 According to them, the weakness of the works carried out

30 R. Pischel, La Religion védique d’après les hymnes du ৙ig-Veda, par A. Bergaigne, Göttingische
Gelehrte Anzeigen 1879/1, p. 161–163.
31 R. Pischel, La Religion védique d’après les hymnes du ৙ig-Veda, par A. Bergaigne. Vol. II. III,
Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, 1884/1, p. 78–80 (digitalisiert).
32 R. Pischel, La Religion védique, 1879, p. 170.
33 Ibid., p. 170.
34 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. xx.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 229

until then was due to the intrusion of linguists in a domain that should have remained
the privilege of philologists:
In the domain of exegesis, we are seeking an objective separation between the
concepts of philology and linguistics. It is an illusion to believe that under-
standing the grammatical form, the vague concepts provided by etymological
analysis and the general conclusions obtained by analogy, can suf¿ce to shed
light on the sense of a (work of) poetry that expresses the very special mind of
a people, culture and intellectual universe that are totally closed off as well as
customs and mores that are foreign to us in more than one way.௘35
The authors of Vedische Studien considered it unjusti¿ed to only seek the keys to an-
cient cultures in etymology. Understanding the lesson of German historicism about the
irreducible speci¿city of each people in a narrower sense than the comparativists did,
they were of the opinion that the Veda did not reÀect the “mind” of the “Indo-European
people” but only that of the “Indian people”, which should be acknowledged in its
individuality. Their rejection of the works of their predecessors can be explained by a
difference of scale, which justi¿ed abandoning comparativism. They thus shared Ber-
gaigne’s reservations when it came to applying comparative grammar to the Vedic do-
main. That their opinion on the works of the French Indologist nevertheless remained
negative was due to a disagreement on the methods one should bring into play in order
to sidestep comparativism. Bergaigne had chosen a solution that consisted in explain-
ing the ‫ۿ‬gveda in a systematic, internal fashion. Still, according to Pischel and Geldner,
deducing the meaning of words from mythological and religious ideas rather than re-
constructing the mythological and religious system from the lexicon made Bergaigne
fall back on the same type of mistakes as those he was criticising – for instance when
he interpreted the men, gods, wind or clouds mentioned in the ‫ۿ‬gveda as metaphors of
¿re, which to him was the supreme element in the Vedic religion, he ended up making
the text incomprehensible. Even though he was trying to give the ‫ۿ‬gveda an Indian
aspect, when he thus projected his own interpretations on to this text, he unwittingly
turned it into an Indo-European document.௘36
Therefore it was necessary to battle on two fronts at the same time. Comparative
mythology absolutely had to be banished from Vedic studies so as to avoid ‘projecting
non Indian elements on to the Veda”.௘37 The ‫ۿ‬gveda should not be treated separately
from the rest of Indian literature, contrary to what Roth and Bergaine had done: the
former when he insisted on the incommensurable difference between the Vedic and
Brahmanic epochs, the latter when he considered the ‫ۿ‬gveda in an internal fashion.
For their part, while they refused to compare this text to other Indo-European docu-
ments, Pischel and Geldner requested that it be studied in the light of later Sanskrit
literature. They considered that this method was more accurate because it made it pos-

35 Ibid., p. XVIII.
36 Ibid., p. XX.
37 Ibid., p. XXX.

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230 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

sible to base oneself on classical texts, better known to European scholars, in order to
go back to the less familiar Vedic domain. Treating the ‫ۿ‬gveda separately ran the risk
of overrating it. As a pure product of the Indian mind, its nature should not be differ-
ent from that of more recent Indian literature. It was therefore legitimate to treat this
“monument of Indian literature” in relation to later writings. This is not to say that India
was immutable from a historical standpoint – the ‫ۿ‬gveda itself included very distinct
historical strata – but the changes were only of conjunctural nature and by no means
affected the minds of the people. This position was so radically committed against any
form of comparativism that even ancient Persian texts could no longer be summoned
to support the Vedic exegesis. Their conviction that “the ‫ۿ‬gveda [was] absolutely not
a book of Indo-Germanic or Aryan nature” led Pischel and Geldner to dissociating it
from the study of the Avesta. Although he was specialised in both the Veda and Avesta,
Geldner himself considered that the similarities between these two texts was of purely
linguistic nature. As their work progressed, Pischel and Geldner were gradually more
convinced that the comparativist perspective was unjusti¿ed. Eight years after they
started their offensive, they were more than ever persuaded of the validity of their ap-
proach. “India to the Indians!” (Indien für die Inder!), was the rallying call that Pischel
hurled as a conclusion to the second book in the series.௘38

The Authority of Commentaries

The Status of Native Commentators

In asserting the right that the ‫ۿ‬gveda had to be treated as a purely Indian document,
Pischel and Geldner tackled head-on some highly sensitive issues. Indeed, they dealt
with the very foundations of the Indological discipline and they reopened the extremely
controversial debate on the place that native science was to hold when it came to
works carried on in the West. Actually, from the start of Sanskrit studies voices had
been raised against the idea of an indigenous science of India. This was notably due
to the fraud committed by some Brahmans in re-copying manuscripts, as well as their
tendency to exaggerate – often in all seriousness – the age of Sanskrit writings and
especially Vedic literature.
Nevertheless, amongst some European Indologists, native science was also clearly
held in disdain. Bopp, for instance, only used the grammars by Wilkins and Forsters,
regardless of Indian grammarians.௘39 The claims of European science – to produce the
only worthwhile discourse on the languages and cultures of India – grew more obvious
with the progress of Indology and comparative grammar. In Germany, Roth decisively
contributed to establishing an attitude of mistrust towards indigenous commentaries
about Vedism – even though earlier on, in the 1840s, he had planned to publish the
‫ۿ‬gveda along with SƗya৆a’s commentary. When this project failed and was taken up by
Müller, Roth undertook to publish YƗska’s Nirukta – a text including an etymological

38 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien II, p. 322.

39 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 76. This was one of his Àaws reproached by A. W. Schlegel.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 231

analysis of Vedic terms that enabled readers to better understand the hymns. However,
in later works Roth was noticeably disdainful towards Indian science, notably SƗya৆a.
He claimed that he made careful, moderate use of interpretations provided by the
Indian commentator when in reality he systematically ruled them out. In a presenta-
tion he gave in 1865 on the “erudite tradition in Antiquity and especially India”,௘40 he
conceded that indigenous commentaries of the Vedas were welcome auxiliaries, then
immediately added that resorting to this scholarly tradition could in no way replace
philological work.
The reason Roth gave was that commentaries were always written when the deep
meaning of writings started to escape readers; therefore the interpretations they put
forward were at least partly anachronistic or erroneous. One of his arguments consisted
in pointing out the temporal, geographical and even ethnic gap between SƗya৆a and
the Vedic Indians. SƗya৆a (15th century A. D.) wrote his commentary some ¿fteen
hundred to two thousand years after the date that Roth attributed to the writing of Vedic
texts. Furthermore, he lived in Vijayanagar, the capital city of the Hindu kingdom of
Southern India, which was founded when the sub-continent had already been invaded
by the Mughals. Created by a Telugu-speaking Dravidian who belonged to a low caste,
this kingdom suffered from several Àaws in Roth’s eyes: it pertained to an epoch when
India was declining under the inÀuence of the Moslems, and it was “of barbarian, non
Aryan origin”. His ¿nal argument was that the only truly ancient indigenous knowl-
edge that had been handed on concerned grammar and etymology. It provided tools to
recover the meaning of writings, but did not supply this meaning in itself.௘41 Roth was
therefore categorical: there had been no continuous tradition in India since Vedic times.
This systematic mistrust towards native commentators had strong repercussions on his
philological work. Since commentators confused the true nature of Vedic writings and
their own Brahmanical erudition, Roth claimed that the meaning of the Vedas had to be
sought ¿rst and foremost in the Vedas themselves. In the preface of the Petersburger
Sanskrit-Wörterbuch, he explained that he had looked for the various occurrences of a
given word and each time studied its meaning with the help of the context; he then used
etymology and the comparison with equivalents of that word in other Indo-European
languages to check the different meanings he had thus collected.௘42
In his 1865 speech, Roth made a distinction between the German school, mindful
of the Àaws of indigenous commentaries, and the British school, totally won over by
Indian exegetes. Amongst the Indologists working in Great Britain, it is true that Wil-
son had based all of his translation of the ‫ۿ‬gveda on interpretations provided by Indian
commentators, and that Müller made it a point of honour to supplement his publication
of the ‫ۿ‬gveda with SƗya৆a’s text. With the rivalries that had opposed them since the

40 R. Roth, Ueber gelehrte Tradition im Alterthume, besonders in Indien. Vorgetragen am 28. Sep-
tember 1865 in der Versammlung der Orientalisten in Heidelberg, Zeitschrift der Deutschen
Morgenländischen Gesellschaft XXI, 1867, p. 1–9.
41 Ibid., p. 3–7.
42 Roth, Vorwort, in: Böhtlingk/Roth, vol. I, p. III–VII.

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232 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

beginning of their respective careers in the background, Roth and Müller both ¿rmly
stood their ground until the end of the 19th century. According to Roth, “a good trans-
lation [was] the best possible commentary”௘43 and should spare itself the indigenous
exegesis. Müller retorted that Roth gave too much importance to the poetic dimension
of translation, to the detriment of scienti¿c rigour. He sided with those who accused
Roth of lapsing into excessive lyricism and turning the Vedic hymns into “Swabian
folk songs”.௘44 With the notable exception of John Muir,௘45 Indologists in post in Great
Britain agreed with Müller to object to the way Roth claimed the superiority of Eu-
ropean science over Indian exegesis. Theodor Goldstücker, for instance, was ironical
about his Tübingen colleague who acted as though the Veda was revealed twice, once
to the Pandits of ancient India and a second time to Roth himself.௘46
Although opponents to his method were mainly located in Great Britain, Roth was
wrong in thinking that other Indologists all shared his refusal of indigenous commen-
taries. Admittedly, his former student Whitney, in the United States,௘47 and, in Germany,
the Vedic specialist Hermann Grassmann – who explicitly ignored the opinion of na-
tive commentators௘48 when he put together his Dictionary and his translation of the
৙gveda – went along with his opinion. However, the process that Roth adopted for the
Petersburger Sanskrit-Wörterbuch brought upon him criticisms from other places than
Great Britain. Some Indologists considered that this led to unnecessarily increasing the
number of meanings of a word rather than deciding on a main meaning. This extreme
Àexibility of lexicon made it possible to have hymns mean what was expected of them,
and notably to attribute them simple, lyrical language.௘49 Alfred Ludwig, an Austrian
Indologist who taught comparative grammar in Prague, was one of the ¿rst scholars
who contradicted Roth and Grassmann. In his translation of the ‫ۿ‬gveda he made use
of later Vedic literature in order to shed light on the most ancient hymns. Fighting
against the representation of the Vedas as purely mythological writings, he sought to
¿nd actual facts behind the mythical tales.௘50 This stance also distinguished him from
Weber – even though Ludwig had been his student in Berlin – who was also opposed
to drawing upon SƗya৆a. This distancing was probably made easier because Ludwig

43 Roth’s words were reported by Müller, ‫ۿ‬g-Veda-Sanhita, vol. II, p. VIII.

44 “Schwäbische Volkslieder” in Benfey’s phrasing, as reported by Windisch, Geschichte, p. 263.
45 J. Muir, On the interpretation of the Veda, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, n. s. II, 1866,
p. 304–305.
46 J. Filliozat, La naissance et l’essor, p. 295; Windisch, Geschichte, p. 254.
47 W. D. Whitney, Oriental and Linguistic Studies, New York 1873–1874, 2 vol.; see also Whitney to
Weber (New Haven, February 12, 1884), StaBi 2b 1854 (18), Bl. 238–240: “the true task which is now
incumbent upon students in Hindu grammatical science is to give an account of its form and limits,
and to apologise for them; however, it is a huge mistake to want to teach Sanskrit on this basis.”
48 Grassmann, Der Rigveda I, p. VI.
49 Oldenberg, Vedaforschung, p. 6. Also see the aforementioned criticism expressed by Bergaigne.
50 A. Ludwig, Der Rigveda oder die heiligen Hymnen der BrƗhmana, Prague 1876–1888, 6 vol.; A.
Ludwig, Die Nachrichten des Rig- und Atharvaveda über Geographie, Geschichte, Verfassung des
alten Indiens, Abhandlungen der Königlich böhmischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Prague

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 233

held a post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and cultivated a certain particularity – his
ideas sometimes bordering on the nonsensical in the opinion of his colleagues.
The Indologist who most strongly opposed Roth in Germany also hailed from the
margins – this time of a sociological nature. Indeed, Martin Haug was a farmer’s son
who had broken up with his environment in order to undertake Sanskrit studies. His
sociological gap with the academic world can be seen in the letter he wrote to Ewald
in 1847:
Since as yet I had never written to someone high-ranking, I appeal to your be-
nevolent leniency, if I make mistakes of form, or if my language is not smooth
and Àowing enough. Surrounded with people prone to materialism and utili-
tarianism […], I had a strong desire, need even, for something better; I was
motivated by a longing for a purer view of the world and religion, so that I often
embarked on the most heterogeneous studies […] But in order to attain a deeper
perception of the religious and philosophical ideas of the ancient world civilised
peoples […] it was ¿rst and foremost necessary to further my knowledge of
languages, which are like bridges in the kingdom of the mind. […] And the wish
to set foot in India or Persia either in full sun or under the silvery moonlight, to
contemplate the ruins of an ancestral, noble and distant epoch, while looking
for what could have been the original sense, this wish continues to arise grow-
ingly more acutely, at times even becoming a true obsession.௘51
The ill-at-ease tone of this letter, the awkwardness of expression and the almost naive
way of presenting his motivations show that on the social level Haug harboured a
formidable complex. Originating from Württemberg and working as an auxiliary in a
school since the age of sixteen thanks to his knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew,
he also taught himself the bases of Sanskrit. Ewald responded positively to his request
and admitted him to his course, but the following year he went back to his post of pro-
fessor in Göttingen. He was replaced by Roth, who was intensely irritated by Haug’s
awkwardness. The latter was deeply affected by his professor’s distant attitude௘52 and he
left to join Ewald in Göttingen. When he became a Privatdozent in Bonn in 1854, Haug
had neither lost his ¿erce determination for social revenge nor his resentment towards
Roth. When the ¿rst book of the Petersburger Sanskrit-Wörterbuch was published,
in 1855, these feelings crystallised into a massive rejection of Roth’s lexicographical
method, this “sheer guesswork” as he called it.௘53

࣠Armchair Philology Put to the Test in the Field

With his great intellectual and professional expectations, Haug felt very bitter at his
precarious situation as a Privatdozent. This was why in 1859 he gladly accepted the

51 Haug to Ewald (Harthof bei Schwieberdingen, April 12, 1847), in: Fick/Selle, p. 26–27.
52 Roth to Ewald (Tübingen, November 29, 1853), ibid., p. 215; Haug to Ewald (Tübingen, Janu-
ary 2, 1854), ibid., p. 37–38. Haug was almost exactly the same age as Roth.
53 Haug to Ewald (Bonn, November 25, 1854), ibid., p. 46.

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234 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

position he was offered, as a professor of Sanskrit and director of the Poona second-
ary school. He was all the more enthusiastic at the idea of going to India because he
believed that when he returned to Europe, this experience would enable him to “make a
name for himself in this branch [Indology]” and even “set up a new school of Sanskrit”.
For that matter, he had been promised a position in a Prussian university if he bought
manuscripts for the government of Prussia and sent yearly reports on his activities.௘54
Amongst all German Indologists of the 19th century, he was one of the ¿rst ones to
go to India; the small number of them who had already visited the sub-continent were
generally missionaries, none of whom were seeking an academic position in Germany.
His approach was totally atypical in an environment made of “armchair philologists”
who, following Müller’s example, refused to go to India on the motive that the country
that they were interested in was that of three thousand years before.
The mission entrusted to Haug by the British government consisted in “introduc-
ing the European philology of Sanskrit [in India]”, in “teaching a better method to the
pandits who taught [at the Sanskrit school]” and to “give lectures on the Veda and other
branches of literature.”௘55 Haug willingly subscribed to this purpose, convinced as he
was of the superiority of European science on indigenous science. However, he was
aware from the start that he had things to learn from the contact with the pandits. Be-
fore he left, he was thrilled about having “the best opportunity to acquire a rare knowl-
edge of Sanskrit literature along with great practical skills in Sanskrit and modern
Persian (Bombay), and to become a connoisseur of the languages, literatures, customs
and mores of the Orient.”௘56 This intuition was con¿rmed as early as his ¿rst year in
India, in 1860, when he noticed that the knowledge of Sanskrit was commonplace and
that one had to perfectly master it if one wanted to win the respect of the Brahmans.௘57
Furthermore, when learning from the pandits, he realised that a gap existed between
their understanding of the Vedic rites and what European exegetes championed. To
him, there was no doubt that the error was on the European side.௘58 His respect for the
knowledge that the Brahmans held prompted him to take side in favour of the authority
of the Indian commentaries of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. He retained this conviction until the end of
his life.௘59 While he considered that the transmission of knowledge as carried out since
Antiquity in Brahmanic schools was not totally reliable, he also brought to mind the
fact that in some of them the training in Vedic texts was not limited to learning them
by-heart but went along exegetic work. Therefore, there existed a fully-Àedged inter-
pretative tradition in India. Concerning the special case of SƗya৆a, Haug admitted that
it was impossible to determine to what extent his work reÀected the spirit of the Vedic

54 About these points: Haug to Ewald (Poona, December 8, 1861), ibid., p. 79; (Poona, August 8,
1863), ibid., p. 92; (Bonn, January 17, 1859), ibid., p. 61–62.
55 Haug to Ewald (Bonn, January 17, 1859), ibid., p. 61 & 67.
56 Haug to Ewald (Bonn, January 17, 1859), ibid., p. 61.
57 Haug to Ewald (Poona, February 20, 1860), ibid., p. 71.
58 Haug to Ewald (Poona, May 25, 1861), ibid., p. 74.
59 M. Haug, On the Interpretation of the Veda, Report of the Proceedings of the Second International
Congress of Orientalists held in London 1874, London/Strasbourg/Leipzig 1874, p. 24–27.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 235

times or a later scholarly tradition. Yet this uncertainty was enough for him to condemn
the approaches that disregarded SƗya৆a’s commentary. European exegetes were overly
victims of their modern Christian view of the world to fully immerse themselves in the
spirit of Vedic times. Since Christian and Hindu civilisations had nothing in common,
modern Indians themselves were certainly more entitled to restore the right meaning
of the Vedas than philologists from Europe – all the more so since certain sacri¿cial
rites inherited from Vedism were still practiced on the sub-continent.
This awareness that it was important to take into account the Indian reality led Haug
to adjust the way he approached Indology and to make a permanent synthesis between
Western philological analysis (whose rigorous, methodical nature he granted௘60) and
¿eld observation:
I devote all my free time to the detailed, in-depth study of the true Ğruti and
the sacri¿ce, with the help of the full explanation to be found in the Aitareya
BrƗhmanaূ, which will soon be completely printed. Last year already I en-
joyed a rare opportunity (which until then had never arisen to any European),
to gather information on sacri¿ces from a sacri¿cing priest (himself). However,
I did not ¿nd this satisfactory. I made every effort to convince the priest to ac-
complish all the ceremonies of the soma sacri¿ce in my presence. […] in the
shed next to my compound, he noiselessly built the required hearths and altars
[…]. The most important ceremonies of the sacri¿ce were actually carried out:
this lasted four days during which, sitting on my chair, I noted down everything
that I deemed worthy of interest.௘61
The care he took in recording the details of the sacri¿ce made in his presence makes
his approach the true work of an ethnographer.௘62 Although he only related this episode
to Ewald under the seal of con¿dentiality, this anecdote went around the community
of Indologists. These considered that it was a betrayal of Protestantism and the surest
indicator of the devastating effect of the contact with modern India for the intellec-
tual and spiritual well-being of Europeans. When he returned to Germany in 1867 for
health reasons, Haug had to thwart several manoeuvres carried out by his colleagues,
especially Weber, in order to prevent him from acceding to the Ordinariat that the
University of Munich offered to him. From Haug’s standpoint, it was clear that the
opposition that he met at the hands of the discipline’s masters was related to the danger
represented by the knowledge he had acquired in India:

However, I perfectly understand Albrecht Weber’s opposition to my being re-

cruited in a German university, namely one of the greatest ones, as is the case

60 Ibid., p. 25–27.
61 Haug to Ewald (Poona, May 10, 1862), in: Fick/Selle, p. 80 (emphasised by Haug).
62 For that matter, Haug was spurred by the determination to put down in writing the customs he
feared would disappear (ibid., p. 82); it was precisely this type of motivation that drove the ¿rst
¿eld ethnologists in the second half of the 19th century.

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236 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

with Munich University. His Sanskrit-Dictatorship in Germany is now over.

Thanks to the knowledge and viewpoints that I have acquired in India, and to
my vast wealth of manuscripts (not only do I own most of the things they have
in Berlin, but I also have many things that are not to be found there), I am truly
in a position to make a ¿rm and successful stand against Weber’s monopoly.௘63

Haug was not wrong about his assets. That his nomination at Munich University ¿nally
succeeded was greatly due to the fact that the Munich Library coveted the collection
of Indian manuscripts he had acquired during his stay in India. Furthermore, once he
became professor, he could pride himself that students showed strong interest in his
course. With eight students in Vedic, seven in Zend and six in Pehlevi, among whom
several came from other regions of Germany, according to his own count he had the
largest number (even with an average of seven per course!) of advanced students in
Indology throughout Germany.௘64 Admittedly, he was far from reversing the power-
play amidst Indology. Nevertheless, the growing number of German Indologists who
left for India as of the 1870s showed the profound reconsideration that went on in the
discipline, until then subjected to the perspective of armchair philologists.

࣠A Place of Honour for the Indian Tradition

Having studied in the 1870s, Pischel and Geldner were aware of the breaches that
were opening in Indological practices in Germany – even though neither of them had
sojourned in India at the time when they started their collaboration. Pischel had an
opportunity to give a lecture course in Calcutta in 1874 but, although he was tempted
by this adventure, he renounced it because his family and friends were worried for
him and the short duration of this position did not make it possible to secure a return
on the ¿nancial investment this trip represented.௘65 This did not keep him from seeking
contact with Indians, and his son attested to the numerous personalities from India
or other far-Eastern countries who came to visit their home in Halle.௘66 Furthermore,
once he had become Ordinarius in Berlin, he played a decisive role in the organisation
of archaeological expeditions sent by the Prussian government to Turfan in the early
20th century, in order to collect traces of the dissemination of Buddhism along the
former silk roads.௘67 There came a new opportunity to sojourn in India in 1908, when
Pischel was invited by the Calcutta University to give a series of lectures on Middle-
Indian dialects. This time, he accepted the invitation and embarked for the Indian sub-
continent. Yet even before he attained India, he was bitten on the ear by an insect and
when he ¿nally reached Madras the bite was so infected that he died in horrible agony

63 Haug to Ewald (Stuttgart, January 15, 1868), ibid., p. 99.

64 Haug to Ewald (Munich, June 7, 1874), ibid., p. 116.
65 Pischel to Weber (Breslau, February 28, 1874 and June 7, 1874), StaBi 2b 1877 (30).
66 Lebensbeschreibung Richard Pischels, p. 35.
67 J. Schulze, Gedächtnisrede auf Richard Pischel, Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Aka-
demie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1909, p. 3–6.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 237

in hospital. He had only had time to visit Ceylon and to attend a ceremony of ‫ۿ‬gveda
recitation. Of India itself, he saw next to nothing.
To a certain extent, his decision to undertake the journey placed Pischel in the con-
tinuity of Haug; his conviction that there existed a speci¿c Indian mentality, which had
withstood the succession of historical eras, further reinforced the af¿nity of his thinking
with that of the Munich Indologist. Indeed, when he had asserted his conviction that
contemporary Hindus were more capable of understanding Vedic culture than the Euro-
peans, because they were direct heirs, Haug had also postulated certain permanency of
the Indian mind. It was this argument that had led him to advocate native commentators.
Therefore, it was not surprising that Pischel, along with Geldner, settled in favour of
using Indian exegesis. Even though SƗya৆a did not always provide good grammatical
or etymological explanations, nothing was taken away from the quality of some of his
comments on the Vedas. In spite of the fact that his mistakes implied extra work in
order to sort out what to retain and what to discard in his commentary, Geldner and
Pischel af¿rmed that they had “acquired the conviction that when it came to vocabu-
lary, indigenous commentaries should be better respected, more widely consulted, and
[…] systematically examined”.௘68 To them, it seemed all the more necessary because
Indologists who only trusted their own analyses and judgement ended up lapsing into
arbitrariness. They especially laid the blame on the tendency to always revise texts on
the pretence of ¿nding their alleged original form. Indeed, this often led to dismiss-
ing dif¿cult passages, although the obscure nature of an hymn did not give anyone
the right to deduce that it had undergone interpolation. They therefore expressed as a
principle that it was the scholar who had to adapt himself to the text and not the other
way around. They claimed that in order to avoid getting carried away, it was ¿rst and
foremost necessary to tackle those passages that most resisted interpretation – rather
than eluding them on the excuse that they might not be authentic௘69 and seeking pos-
sible solutions from indigenous commentators. On this as on several other points, their
position became more radical in the second volume of Vedic Studies, where they as-
serted that they henceforth placed SƗya৆a far above European exegetes and that they
had become “even more conservative and even more Indian” – in other words, that
they wanted to further contest the systematic transformations that Vedic writings were
submitted to by Indo-Europeanist projections.௘70

68 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. V.

69 Ibid., p. XXXII.
70 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien II, p. IV. Nevertheless, Geldner’s disposition was not as bold
and polemical as Pischel’s, and once the latter was deceased it became dif¿cult for Geldner to
continue to struggle on his own. His late publications show that the weight of scholarly traditions
obviously had caught up with him. He delivered a translation of the ‫ۿ‬gveda in which he was much
more cautious in his use of commentators. At times he even took up again the method recom-
mended by Roth, to whom he dedicated the book. See K. Geldner, Der ৙gveda aus dem Sanskrit
ins Deutsche übersetzt und mit einem laufenden Kommentar versehen, Cambridge (Mass.)/Lon-
don/Wiesbaden 1951–1957, 4 vol.

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238 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

Ancient India Reconsidered

When the ৙gveda Fell off its Pedestal

“Until now, we cannot claim that the ‘new method’ has met with great success.” With
this acknowledgement in the preface to the second volume of the Vedische Studien,
Pischel and Geldner showed their clarity of mind. Indeed, even though many observers
expressed their satisfaction at the new inspiration that the two collaborators provided
to Indology, very few of them were ready to make these methodological precepts their
own.௘71 Such reserve from their peers was far from surprising them. Not only had they
prepared themselves for it, but they even claimed they were thrilled by it:
When, in the Autumn 1889, we published the ¿rst volume of our studies, we
expected strong opposition. Seven years later, we are delighted to announce that
we were not passed over in silence and that on the contrary people have gone to
great lengths to dissect our work. […] They all […] have shown us again how
it is easier to demolish than to build, and how testing a task it is to try ¿ghting
against a dogma rooted in science for decades. No-one has undermined our
conviction that we have chosen the right path.௘72
The tone of their work contributed to the half-hearted response it received. As they
themselves emphasised, they were obliged to appear determined and radical, given
the persisting discipline habits and representations as well as the way the ¿eld of
Indological studies was structured in true master-disciple relationships. To some of
their colleagues who were alarmed to see them thus calling into question the disci-
pline’s internal power-plays, they coolly replied that their “respect” towards Indolo-
gists such as Roth and Böhtlingk did not “prevent them from expressing opinions that
differed from theirs”.௘73 However, the multiple accounts devoted to Vedische Studien
prove that the strategy of radicalism could also be counter-productive. Almost all
of them concurred in denouncing the excessive nature of the methods and theses
championed by Pischel and Geldner. Although he agreed with them on the principle,
Ludwig was so offended by some criticisms they had addressed to him that he at-
tacked the Vedische Studien for their “spirit of exaggeration and desire to cause a
sensation”. He stated very clearly that this series spread more uncertainties and was
not a guarantee of progress.௘74 Hermann Oldenberg was just as put off by the tone of
these volumes, which he found provocative. He expressed his wish to see Pischel
and Geldner “reÀecting more calmly” and adopting “a more reliable technique in

71 One exception was Emil Sieg, a former student of Geldner, in: Die Sagenstoffe des ৙gveda und
die indische Itihâsatradition, Darmstadt 1969 (1st ed., Stuttgart 1902), p. 36.
72 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien II, p. III.
73 Ibid., p. V. This was an answer to a criticism by Leopold von Schröder in the Zeitschrift der Deut-
schen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft XL, 1886, p. 172.
74 A. Ludwig, Über Methode bei Interpretation des ‫ۿ‬gveda, Abhandlungen der Königlich Böhmi-
schen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 7th series, vol. 4, philosophisch-historisch-philologische
Classe 1, Prague 1890, p. 19, 28 & 69.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 239

detailed philological work”.௘75 In Great-Britain, as of the publication of the second

volume in the series, the philologist Edward Vernon Arnold declared that one could
“reasonably advance that the authors [had] a tendency to exaggerate”.௘76 This criticism
had already been formulated by the Belgian specialist of Vedic Studies Philémon
Colinet in 1890. He considered that Pischel and Geldner’s reaction was “excessive”, it
had logically “exceeded the purpose” and it was time to “get into the golden mean”.௘77
Trained in classical philology as well as Indology, Pischel prided himself on his
twofold competency and put it forward to defend his works. This proves the method-
ological prestige that classical studies still enjoyed in the late 19th century. He used this
argument against Weber, who was perfectly experienced in classical philology, during
their controversy on the variants of ĝakuntalƗ.௘78 The inÀuence of classical philology
is also visible in the Vedische Studien: in the fashion of the sciences of Antiquity, they
presented a collection of detailed studies supposed to rectify the tendency to “write
broad, stylish outlines on the ‫ۿ‬gveda” and whose ¿nal aim was to constitute a true
“portrait of Vedic life”. Thus referring to the age-old methodological authority of classi-
cal philology was somewhat conservative. However, it was a strategically clever move
on the part of Geldner and Pischel in order to establish the legitimacy of their results,
which they clearly announced as providing “a conception of the Veda considerably
removed from commonly acknowledged conceptions”.௘79
From Müller to Whitney including Brunnhofer, Kaegi and Zimmer, Vedic special-
ists had frankly exaggerated the age of the Vedic text, unduly showing enthusiasm
for the “primitive stage of the Indo-European civilisation” on which it was supposed
to provide information. Determined to “destroy these illusions”, Geldner and Pischel
immediately undertook the task of relativising the antiquity of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. This point
was of crucial importance in order to justify comparisons between this text and classi-
cal Sanskrit literature, as well as making use of the later native commentaries. In order
to do so, they questioned results that had until then been thought of as true dogma in
Vedic studies. Contrary to their predecessors, they reÀected upon the fact that several
passages in the ‫ۿ‬gveda mentioned the “sea” and “elephants”. Formed on roots that
varied from one Indo-European language to the next, these words referred to realities
that were present in India. This proved to them that the authors of the Vedic hymns had
already arrived in India at the time when they wrote them, and that this writing took
place at a time far distant from the undivided Indo-European epoch.௘80 These arguments

75 H. Oldenberg, Pischel u. Geldner, Vedische Studien, II. Heft, Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 10,
May 15, 1890, p. 427.
76 E. V. Arnold, Two Books on the Rigveda, in: The Classical Review 5, 1891, p. 43–48; same, Recent
works on the Rigveda, in: The Classical Review 14, p. 56. However, there is a more positive tone in
Fr. W. Thomas, Pischel and Geldner’s Vedische Studien, The Classical Review 16, 1902, p. 233–234.
77 P. Colinet, Principes de l’exégèse védique d’après MM. Pischel et Geldner, in: Museon IX, 1890,
p. 250–267; p. 372–388.
78 Windisch, Geschichte, p. 334.
79 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. XXI.
80 Ibid., p. XIII–XV.

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240 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

aroused protest from a large number of their colleagues, yet Pischel and Geldner did
not stop there௘81 and went back to the characteristics of Vedic society, showing that it
did not have any of the “primitive” traits usually attributed to it. They were especially
opposed to the still-domineering representation that Zimmer had given ten years before,
af¿rming that Vedic Indians not only were no longer nomadic but lived in true cities
with elaborate buildings. They thus identi¿ed great “modernity” in the Vedic society,
and they thought traces of it could be found when it came to mores. Far from the usual
ethereal views, they did not hesitate to assert that what was to be found in the Veda
“was not the innocent morals of a pastoral people. […] Vedic Indians already presented
all the Àaws and weaknesses of later Hindus.”௘82 They hunted down all the episodes of
the text that demonstrated dubious morals – such as the importance of courtesans (das
hochentwickelte Hetärenthum), the lure of gain (die masslose Sucht nach Geld) as well
as “perjury, theft, banditry, cheating at games”.௘83 Anxious to return the Vedic life to its
prosaic everyday nature, they translated the hymns into ordinary language, using more
familiar turns than the lyrical tone used until then.௘84 They thus went headlong against
the habits that consisted in envisaging the ‫ۿ‬gveda as a pure and spontaneous poetry
piece. Admittedly, Bergaigne had questioned this representation and demonstrated
the elaborate nature of the Vedic rhetoric, yet without taking away any of the alleged
nobility of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. In making use of prosaic turns, Pischel and Geldner deprived
it of its primitive freshness in order to make it more modern, and they denied it any
moral value. After it was brandished for such a long time as a symbol of Indo-European
grandeur, the ‫ۿ‬gveda threatened to fall from its pedestal.

Comparative Mythology into Question

Feeling that these questionings were directly aimed at them, the masters of the former
generation opposed at best condescending silence.௘85 On the other hand, the strong reac-
tions of some Indologists from the new generation were more surprising, all the more

81 See the reaction of the French specialist of comparative linguistics Victor Henry in: Revue cri-
tique d’histoire et de littérature, 1890/1, February 3, 1890, p. 81–82: “admittedly, there is a lot of
truth in these ideas, and I am happy to say that I even like their exaggeration: it is possible that
Vedic specialists and Indo-Germanists cannot be protected against the illusion of an ‘Aryan Bible’.
However, the exaggeration is obvious. From the fact that the Veda is Hindu, the Iliad and Odys-
sey are Greek and the Nibelungen Germanic, does it necessarily follow that they have nothing to
teach us on the old Indo-European base they are certainly stemming from?”
82 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. XXV.
83 Ibid., p. XXIII–XXV.
84 Hence Ludwig’s incensed reaction, Über Methode, p. 58: “Here is an example of the way the
Vedas are translated nowadays: making use of crude, unsuitable and often vulgar words, thus in-
directly claiming that such is the true way to render it all, that this enables people to grasp the very
special tone and spirit of the ‫ۿ‬gveda. […] As far as I am concerned, I cannot bear the translations
where gross and vulgar words pour forth […] and which use pipedreams to give us consolation
for the fact that German is not Sanskrit. One cannot conceive that anything more remote from
the general tone of the Veda could exist.”
85 Dandekar, p. 35; Renou, Les Maîtres, p. 45; Colinet, p. 2–3.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 241

so because they showed their determination to distance themselves from the commonly
acknowledged practices of their discipline. Such was the case with Alfred Hillebrandt
and Hermann Oldenberg. Trained in Stenzler’s school in Breslau, as Pischel had been,
Hillebrandt showed no more enthusiasm about comparative grammar than his master.
Moreover, he attended Haug’s course, which further sharpened his critical sense. He
was ¿rst a Privatdozent (1877) and then an extraordinary professor (1882) in Breslau.
When he succeeded Stenzler and became the holder of his chair as a professor of
Sanskrit and comparative grammar, he hastened to dissociate both teachings, retain-
ing Sanskrit for himself while August Fick was entrusted with comparative grammar.
What motivated this decision was Hillebrandt’s distaste for this discipline as well as
his conviction that the role of modern languages had as much if not more importance
for linguistic comparison than that of Sanskrit.௘86 His longing for renewal was explicit,
yet his attitude was less polemical than Geldner’s and Pischel’s, and he made every
effort not to offend the great names of the former generation.௘87
As for Hermann Olenberg, he studied classical philology and Indology in Berlin
under the leadership of Weber – that is to say a former student of Stenzler. Oldenberg
thus belonged to the same intellectual network as Hillenbrandt (a student of Stenzler)
and Pischel (a student of Stenzler and Weber). For that matter, in the same way as
Pischel with Prakrit, Oldenberg opened German Indology to a new ¿eld of investiga-
tion: he took an interest in Buddhism and aspects of India other than the sole Sanskrit
culture.௘88 Furthermore, even in his Vedic works, he took care to dissociate himself from
the systematic use of comparative grammar. Before him, Weber himself had reacted
against the hegemony of comparativists on the study of Sanskrit, especially in Berlin,
but his strategy had consisted in making comparative grammar a tool at the service
of the study of Indian texts and languages. In the end, this put the subject back at the
very heart of the Indological ¿eld – while Oldenberg intended to go back on to this
connection, which he considered as invasive.
Logically, Hillebrandt’s and Oldenberg’s scepticism led them to focus their criti-
cisms on comparative mythology. While Hillebrandt declared that he “did not believe
in the future of comparative mythology”, Oldenberg went further and af¿rmed that “the
time when being a specialist of the Vedas meant being a ‘comparatist mythologist’ was

86 A. Hillebrandt, Sanskrit, in: Altindien. Kulturgeschichtliche Skizzen, Breslau 1899, p. 46.

87 A. Hillebrandt, Sanskrit und vergleichende Sprachforschung, in: G. Kaufmann (ed.), Festschrift
zur Feier des hundertjährigen Bestehens der Universität Breslau, vol. II, Breslau 1911, p. 371;
A. Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie, vol. I: Soma und verwandte Götter, Breslau 1891, p. IV–V.
Before him, Stenzler had already actually managed to teach only Sanskrit, having comparative
grammar courses ensured by his Privatdozent, among them Pischel and Hillebrandt, who half-
heartedly took on this responsibility.
88 As was the case with many other Indologists of his generation (among them Hillebrandt in 1905),
Oldenberg had an opportunity to go to India in 1912–1913; however, he came back disappointed
from his journey, strengthened in his feeling that the Brahmans were characterised by their ma-

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242 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

over”.௘89 After Roth, Weber and Whitney had already criticised Müller’s mythological
school for its theory on the “disease of language” and its tendency for hasty generali-
sations, Oldenberg and Hillebrandt also condemned the abuse of the Indo-European
paradigm. In this respect, they acknowledged their debt to Bergaigne, who was the ¿rst
to have systematically deconstructed this problematic aspect of comparative mythol-
ogy௘90 – even though he had treated the Veda “in undue isolation” and given “a weak
and oversimpli¿ed image” of the text. Stating that the variations of mythological and
religious data were conditioned by factors other than linguistic ones and that therefore
“the interest of etymologists and those of mythologists did not follow parallel courses”,
Hillebrandt and Oldenberg took on the very foundations of comparative mythology as
it had been elaborated by Kuhn and Müller.௘91

Naturmythologie, nevertheless
The distances that Hillebrandt and Oldenberg took towards Indo-European compara-
tivism seem to suggest that they were going to take a stand in favour of Pischel and
Geldner. Nevertheless, Oldenberg’s reaction was rather half-hearted; as for Hillebrandt,
he showed open hostility towards Vedische Studien. This situation probably had some-
thing to do with the institutional rivalries that existed between scholars of the same
generation. As proof, when he became extraordinary professor in Berlin, Geldner took
over the position left vacant by Oldenberg, who had just acceded to an Ordinariat in
Kiel. In 1901, when Weber passed away, both his former students Pischel and Olden-
berg were up for his succession.௘92 Pischel thus took his revenge on Oldenberg, whom
he had been jealous of for being appointed extraordinary professor in Berlin while he
himself held a position in Kiel, far from specialised libraries and overburdened with his
lectures.௘93 The issue of the rapport with their master also played a part in the conÀict-
ing relationship between Pischel and Hillebrandt, who fought over their proximity to
Stenzler. When the latter died in 1887, Pischel gathered the deceased’s archives with
jealous care and vied with Hillebrandt to write his necrology.௘94 Appointed as Stenzler’s
successor at the Ordinariat in Breslau, even though Pischel had been ranked ¿rst by the
Faculty, Hillebrandt made no bones about posing as Stenzler’s exclusive heir, notably
when it came to reacting to Vedische Studien.௘95

89 A. Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie, vol. II: Uৢas. Agni. Rudra, Breslau 1899, p. 21; H. Olden-
berg, Göttergnade und Menschenkraft in den altindischen Religionen. Rede beim Antritte des
Rektorates der Königlichen Christian-Albrechts-Universität am 5. März 1906, Kiel 1906, p. 7.
90 Oldenberg, Vedaforschung, p. 65.
91 Oldenberg, Göttergnade und Menschenkraft, p. 7; Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie, vol. II, p. 19.
92 Lebensbeschreibung Richard Pischels, p. 42–43.
93 StaBi 2b, 1877 (30), Pischel to Weber (Kiel, November 26, 1881).
94 A. Hillebrandt, Adolf Friedrich Stenzler, in: Chronik der Königlichen Universität zu Breslau für
das Rechnungsjahr 1886–1887, Breslau 1888, p. 19–24; R. Pischel, Stenzler, Adolf Friedrich,
Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 36, Leipzig 1893, p. 59–61.
95 Lebensbeschreibung Richard Pischels, p. 29; A. Hillebrandt, Vedainterpretation, Breslau 1895, p. 4.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 243

Besides this by-no-means-insigni¿cant rivalry, what can also explain Oldenberg’s

and Hillebrandt’s reticent attitude is the place they still granted to the study of Vedic
mythology, despite their criticism of comparative mythology. The three volumes of
Hillebrandt’s major work, Vedische Mythologie (Vedic Mythology), were published
in 1891, 1899 and 1901. This work undertook to reappropriate, in adequate terms, a
¿eld of study that had been discredited because of the way specialists in comparative
mythology had dealt with it. Besides their misuse of etymology, Hillebrandt criticised
them for having neglected the importance of migrations, phenomena of contact and
the inÀuence of climate in the evolution of myths. He also blamed them for having
worked on the assumption that “a common language leads to common beliefs”.௘96 Of
course, Vedic mythology still had to be studied and Hillebrandt remained in agreement
with Müller on the fact that Vedic writings were especially suitable for the study of the
evolution of mythology.௘97 It was simply that one had to relinquish both etymology and
the illusion that the Veda represented the early stages of mythology.
Oldenberg shared this analysis yet differed from his colleague as to the modalities
of the long-awaited methodological renewal. To him, what had to be avoided ¿rst and
foremost was to fully subscribe to the Naturmythologie thesis, because this would be
the most certain indication of a return, even involuntary, to Müller’s school. On the
other hand, Hillebrandt was more suspicious of Oldenberg’s periodical attempts at
recovering the Indo-European form of some Vedic gods.௘98 Distancing oneself from
comparativism did not go without trial and error. Much versed into Naturmythologie,
Hillebrandt granted a very signi¿cant place to the moon.௘99 Ironically bringing to mind
that Vedic Indians were not troglodytes, he considered that observing the movements
of the moon and sun provided the most logical starting points of mythological think-
ing. Oldenberg shared this conviction, yet he thought that this was combined with
other mythological forms. Vedic poets had lost the awareness of the natural origin of
myths, and through their interpolations they had provided a representation of gods that
was increasingly more anthropomorphised. Vedic myths were not all stemming from
a natural base and while some gods had immediately borrowed their features from
heroes of Aryan history, others embodied types of action, even abstractions. Hille-
brandt understood Savitar as a solar god when Oldenberg rather considered him as
the instigator of human activity.௘100 Their diverging viewpoints resulted in some rather
sharp exchanges. In this case, Hillebrandt scoffed at Oldenberg for giving deities a
signi¿cance that they could only have if Vedic poets had written their hymns in an of-
¿ce rather than in nature. In return, Oldenberg criticised Hillebrandt for falling into the
mistakes of the past again, letting himself be charmed by the perspective of a natural,

96 A. Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie. Kleine Ausgabe, Breslau 1910, p. 1.

97 A. Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie, vol. II, p. 4.
98 A. Hillebrandt, Hermann Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda, Deutsche Litteraturzeitung 16, Janu-
ary 19, 1895, p. 72.
99 A. Hillebrandt, Das altindische Neu- und Vollmondopfer in seiner einfachsten Form, Iena 1879.
100 H. Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda, Berlin 1894, p. 50 & p. 64–65.

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244 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

spontaneous – in short, idyllic – world.௘101 At any rate, the Veda still provided matter
for research on mythology. The important thing was that one should not draw any sus-
picion upon oneself – either for working in the same vein as Müller, or for carrying
out a nostalgic quest for Indo-European origins.
Contrary to Geldner and Pischel, Oldenberg and Hillebrandt were nevertheless
convinced that it was all a question of moderation and that the link between the ‫ۿ‬gveda
and the Indo-European past could not purely and simply be jettisoned. Just as the Vedic
language derived from a common Indo-European language, the Vedic writings had to
draw their roots from a common Indo-European narrative stock: the speci¿cally Indian
character of the ‫ۿ‬gveda did not rule out Indo-European traits.௘102 The gap was further
widened by the view of Vedic religion put forward by Geldner and Pischel. They had
applied themselves to proving that Vedic Indians were driven by much more earthly
concerns than Indo-European fantasies had until then suggested. This led them to mini-
mising the importance of religion and spirituality in this modern, corrupted society. As
for its character, Vedic religion did not refer to natural elements; these pertained to an
Indo-European epoch that was already in the past when the ¿rst hymns were written.௘103
According to Geldner and Pischel, the Vedic deities simply resulted from the worship
of men deemed extraordinary. Hillebrandt immediately denounced this interpretation
as a caricature of Euhemerus’ theories. In a pamphlet written as a parody of Vedische
Studien and published under the pseudonym Fritz Bonsens,௘104 he caricatured Pischel
and Geldner’s prosaic style in order to denounce its excess, pushing their reasoning to
the absurd. Indra was thus pictured as a rich and depraved prince – which had at least
the advantage of familiarising ‫ۿ‬gveda exegetes with the world of the “taverns” of an-
cient India. As for the goddess Aditi, even though her name meant “earth” or “eternity”,
she had nothing to do with these elements but was, originally, an Indian woman; Fritz
Bonsens advanced as proof that in the text, mention is made of her “delivery”, a term
that can be interpreted as “giving birth”. Since there were still women giving birth in
India, this was the proof of the Indian nature of Aditi. The goddess could therefore not
be brought back to a natural basis anymore than to an Indo-European origin.
The impetuous Pischel could not remain indifferent to such an attack, and both
scholars found themselves involved in a bitter argument. Hillebrandt criticised
Vedische Studien, accusing Pischel of having produced a thoughtless, immature work.
Pischel retorted that he had started working on the Veda long before his Breslau col-
league. Each Indologist questioned the other’s ability at distancing himself and gaining

101 H. Oldenberg, Zu Mythologie und Cultus des Veda, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen
Gesellschaft XLIX, 1895, p. 172.
102 A. Hillebrandt, Vedainterpretation, Breslau 1895, p. 19; Oldenberg, Pischel u. Geldner, p. 405.
103 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. xxvi.
104 F. Bonsens, Die Götter des ৙gveda. Eine euhemeristische Skizze, Breslau 1894. A Greek mytho-
grapher of the 4th century B. C., Euhemerus interpreted religious myths from a rational perspec-
tive: according to him, gods were men that their contemporaries had dei¿ed because they either
admired or feared them. Hence the term “euhemerism” to designate rationalist theories on the
origins of religion.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 245

enough skill to exceed their masters. While Hillebrandt blamed Pischel for jumping
the gun, Pischel answered that in opting for Naturmythologie, his detractor had chosen
the easy way out.௘105

Towards a Rede¿nition of “the Primitive”

In order to demonstrate the modern aspect of the Vedic society, Pischel and Geldner
put its corrupted nature forward, making a paradigmatic opposition between “men in a
natural state”௘106 with pureness and simplicity on the one hand and civilisation with its
increasing complexity and decadence on the other: “What we have in the Veda is not
the simple mores of a pastoral people, but a very, even excessively advanced civilisa-
tion [Kultur].”௘107 They were not re-de¿ning the traditional categories “primitive” and
“civilisation” – rather, which category the ‫ۿ‬gveda belonged to. Furthermore, while
they refused to yield to the fascination of Indo-European notions, they nevertheless
remained especially attracted to the most ancient historical documents. Despite the
fact that, to them, the ‫ۿ‬gveda depicted a very prosaic world, it remained “the most
ancient document, the most signi¿cant when it came to the life of the Indian mind”,
and the true “summit” of Sanskrit studies.௘108 Even fallen from its pedestal, it retained
value related to its chronological primacy vis-à-vis other writings from ancient India.
Pischel and Geldner remained rooted in the trend that granted superiority to what was
“primitive”, primarily concerning themselves with the most ancient documents avail-
able to scholars even though the writings in question were too recent to belong to the
famous “primitive” category.
This af¿nity of thought with their predecessors did not go unnoticed by some
Indologists. For instance, as early as the publication of the ¿rst volume of Vedische
Studien, Philémon Colinet stressed that it was arbitrary to grant original peoples a vir-
tuous nature.௘109 Oldenberg and Hillebrandt joined their voices in this criticism. On the
occasion of a synthesis on the history of Vedic studies in Germany, Oldenberg insisted
on the fact that the corruption argument put forward by Pischel and Geldner was only
valid on the basis of their preconceived representation of the history of humanity as
in decline – whereas nothing proved that the original state was exempt from moral
failings.௘110 Hillebrandt shared this opinion and vehemently asserted:

It is an error to envisage the Vedic epoch as that of an advanced civilisation

[Kultur] and the Veda as the product of a civilised epoch [zivilisierte Zeit]. […]
Admittedly, it reÀects neither the naive and innocent soul of pastoral clans, nor

105 See the articles by Hillebrandt and Pischel in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen
Gesellschaft XLVII, 1894, respectively p. 418–423 and p. 701–702: A. Hillebrandt, Vedainter-
pretation; and R. Pischel, Vedainterpretation, in: Vedische Studien II, 1897, p. 230–247.
106 Pischel/Geldner, Vedische Studien I, p. XXVI.
107 Ibid., p. XXIII.
108 Ibid., p. XXXII.
109 Colinet, p. 8.
110 Oldenberg, Vedaforschung, p. 53.

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246 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

the joyful childhood of Aryan humanity. Nevertheless, the true or alleged traces
of the existence of courtesans, concupiscence and cupidity, which Pischel wants
to see as indications of advanced civilisation [Kultur], do not mean a departure
from the state of nature. On the contrary, it is a departure from the state of the
human society in a truly primitive epoch, as all ethnologists have been describ-
ing it. Primitive farmers and shepherds should not only be sought in the light of
Rousseauistic depictions but also in the real world. This would make it possible
to understand that the Vedic clans had not yet given up the character of these
primitive breeders and farmers.௘111

Even if one acknowledged that Vedic society was marked by depravation, neverthe-
less this did not make it a modern society. On the contrary, this depravation could be
interpreted as an indication that it was incapable of surpassing its “primitive” state.
From Hillebrandt’s and Oldenberg’s viewpoints, the ‫ۿ‬gveda had to be de¿ned as the
product of a “primitive” society. However, the meaning they both gave to this term
greatly differed from that which Indologists of the former generation had attributed
to it. Henceforth, “primitive” represented an initial state which did not necessarily
go hand in hand with innocence and purity. The reference to “ethnologists” and their
observations in “the real world” (in contemporary times) was fundamental in that it
highlighted this change of paradigm. The “primitive” man was henceforth understood
as “savage”, i. e. he who had not yet bene¿ted from the light of civilisation. Hillebrandt
was to repeat this on many occasions: “Morality gains ground pari passu with the
progress of civilisation and religion.”௘112 Convinced of the “primitive” nature of Vedic
society, Hillebrandt and Oldenberg could legitimately criticise Pischel and Geldner for
giving too much consideration to later Sanskrit literature and neglecting the roots of
the Vedic text. The ‫ۿ‬gveda had lost some of its aura, and realism was the new motto.
However, from primitive tribes to classical Sanskrit literature, authors differed on the
reference points they used to place the Veda within tangible reality.

The Lessons of Anthropology

British Evolutionists and the Social Aspect of Religion

Hillebrandt suggested that “savages” as de¿ned by ethnologists represented that same
state of being that was shown in the ‫ۿ‬gveda, due to its great antiquity, and he af¿rmed
that the development of civilisation had brought about moral progress. In doing so,
he placed himself within a typically evolutionist perspective.௘113 Combined together,
these two postulates attributed the social condition of savages to their lack of historical

111 Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie. Kleine Ausgabe, p. 15–16.

112 A. Hillebrandt, What to learn from Vedic Mythology?, Transactions of the Third International
Congress for the History of Religions, vol. II, Oxford 1908, p. 11.
113 A. Hillebrandt, Brahmanismus und Volksthum, in: Altindien. Kulturgeschichtliche Skizzen, Breslau
1899, p. 91.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 247

development and participation in the general movement of progress and civilisation.

Using these peoples as a measure of the situation of Vedic society, Hillebrandt envisaged
them as true living repositories for the original state of being. This perspective shows
the growing importance that anthropology took on in the late 19th century, although it
was a recent science. In Germany, “ethnology” (Ethnologie, also called Völkerkunde)
covered realities that greatly varied from one country to the next, and referred to a sci-
ence that empirically and comparatively analysed the differences, convergences and
conditions of human civilisation, examining the formation and delimitation of ethnic
unities, as well as their relationships. In opposition to the Volkskunde or ‘study of the
culture of European peoples’, it took into account the study of extra-European, non
civilised peoples (Primitive, Naturvölker). It had a strong ethnographic – i. e. descrip-
tive – dimension. In France, the term “ethnologie” often referred to what we would
now call “racial anthropology”. Lastly, in Great-Britain, where anthropology was given
a decisive impulse in the 19th century, anthropology was the term used to designate
the activity of describing the cultural and social organisation of savages (or – a term
coined at that time – primitives), while ethnology was still commonly understood from
a Pritchardian viewpoint, i. e. as the classi¿cation of peoples, based on linguistic crite-
ria.௘114 In any case, ¿eld anthropology was not yet practised and information concern-
ing primitive societies came from ancient writings or – more and more often – from
accounts reported by the travellers who journeyed all over the world.
While reÀection on primitive peoples developed throughout Europe along the 19th
century, it was in Great Britain that it enjoyed its greatest expansion. The rich and di-
verse school of British evolutionist ethnologists included John Fergusson MacLennan,
Edward Burnett Tylor, John Lubbock, William Robertson Smith and James George
Frazer. They mainly rallied around the conviction that “savage” peoples had remained
at the stage of the childhood of mankind. Observing that rites and myths occupied a
very important place in the daily lives of these peoples, British ethnologists committed
a large part of their works to reÀecting on the origins of religion and mythology௘115 – a
¿eld of study widely covered by Indologists. After they had fought against the hege-
mony of classical philology, specialists of India now came up against competition from
ethnologists. For instance, Müller placed himself in a purely philological perspective
when he declared, in the 1890s: “I hold as strongly as ever that neither cult nor mythol-
ogy is possible without a previous elaboration of the concepts and names of the gods.”௘116

114 Edward Burnett Tylor was at the origin of this use of the term anthropology. Since it also corre-
sponded to the study of the physical features of individuals (physical anthropology), the expres-
sion cultural anthropology was then formulated in the U. S. A, to speci¿cally refer to ethnological
activity. Cultural anthropology included three parts, respectively called archeology, linguistics
and ethnology proper. In Great-Britain, social anthropology was conceived on the model of
American cultural anthropology, yet with the major difference that it explicitly focussed on the
study of social structures.
115 K. H. Kohl, Geschichte der Religionswissenschaft, in: H. Cancik et alii (ed.), Handbuch religions-
wissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, vol. I, 1988, p. 243–247.
116 Müller, Physical Religion, p. 299.

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248 III. The Challenges of Anthropology

His method attracted criticism from many ethnologists, who regretted that he had not
given more consideration to the sociological and institutional aspects of this issue.
Yet Müller showed the greatest restraint when it came to Auguste Comte’s or Herbert
Spencer’s works in the sociology of religions. He estimated that they had not done
enough justice to the spiritual aspect of religion, nor to the presence of a feeling of the
in¿nite in each individual.௘117 Admittedly, in his Principles of Sociology (1876), Spen-
cer also started out with the notion that the visible was constructed from the invisible.
However, contrary to his British colleague, he related this presupposition with social
life. According to the theory of manism that he developed, men became aware of the
duality of body and mind through their dreams. This enabled them to imagine that the
souls of the dead remained, in the shape of mana – hence the development of sacri¿ces
on the tombs of ancestors considered as superior, who thus took on the status of gods.
Müller’s idealism led him to reject such positivist sociological explanations, as
well as to counter the anthropological approaches that placed the ritual and sacri¿ce at
the heart of religion. He thus took the opposing view from W. R. Smith. In his works
devoted to Semitic religion, Smith considered that it had developed around an ensem-
ble of institutions, such as sacri¿ces, ablutions and fasting, and that it was therefore
fundamentally anchored in society. According to Smith, sacri¿ce had an absolutely
central role in establishing a link between men and their god: indeed, in its initial
form sacri¿ce was not a gift from the former to the latter, but a meal shared between
them, which implied a collective rather than private dimension in the sacri¿ce, and a
de¿nition of religion as an aspect of public life in the same way as politics.௘118 Müller
could not subscribe to this interpretation, which he considered simplistic. Faithful to
his approach as a linguist, he countered Smith on the ground that the terms referring
to sacri¿ce in the various Indo-European languages could not be brought down to a
single root. According to him, this was irrefutable proof that sacri¿ce was not at the
basis of religions, but only developed subsequently.௘119
Another dividing line between these theories was that in his analysis of religion,
Smith included the totemist hypothesis developed by another British evolutionist eth-
nologist, John F. MacLennan. Totemism referred to a religious and social system in
which individuals, family groups and people from a same place considered themselves
as permanently linked to a generally animal or sometimes vegetal totem, perceived
as the protector of the clan.௘120 Such a worship of plants and animals served to guar-
antee the organisation and cohesion of clans that were characterised by exogamy and

117 Bosch, p. 303.

118 H. G. Kippenberg, Die Entdeckung der Religionsgeschichte. Religionswissenschaft und Moderne,
Munich 1997, p. 100–113.
119 Bosch, p. 315.
120 J. F. MacLennan, The worship of animals and plants, Fortnightly Review, n. s., vol. VI, 1869,
p. 407–427; vol. VII, 1870, p. 194–216. The term “totemism” had already been used by the pre-
cursors of American ethnography; MacLennan was the ¿rst to undertake a systematic study of
this subject. F. Rosa, L’Age d’or du totémisme. Histoire d’un débat anthropologique (1887–1929),
Paris 2003, p. 11–34 and 67–90.

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The Status of India: A Question of Scale 249

matrilineal ¿liation. As a preliminary step before animism, totemism was universal

according to MacLennan. He strove to explain the obscure relationships between some
gods and animals in the pantheons of Greek and Egyptian Antiquity by comparing them
with the practices of Indian peoples in North America.௘121 MacLennan thus brought
back the origin of all religions to a worship whose functions were mainly social. On
the other hand, throughout his whole life Müller refused to question his theory on the
natural origin of mythology in the name of all the new fetishist, totemist or animist
theories. He kept on claiming the crucial importance of observing natural phenom-
ena, and especially the movements of the sun, for the formation of myths. One can all
the better understand his hesitations towards the analysis of religion put forward by
Smith, who saw traces of totemism in Semitic religions.௘122 Insofar as he considered
sacri¿ce from the viewpoint of the commensality of men and god, Smith refuted the
opposition between a Semitic religion stressing the transcendence of a god and an
Indo-European religion marked by speci¿c proximity between men and gods, as put
forward by Müller.௘123

The School of Analogy versus the School of Etymology

From Germany to Great Britain and France, comparative mythology, so dear to Mül-
ler, was the subject of much debate – and this wave of questioning hit Indo-European
comparativism head-on. Ethnologists such as MacLennan and Smith explained certain
aspects of ancient religions by revealing practices observed amongst “savage” peoples.
This shows that they believed in comparing groups speaking different languages. The
underlying presupposition in MacLennan’s approach was that certain traits of primi-
tive societies (in the sense of chronological precedence) were remarkably perpetuated
in “savage” societies. There were also “survivals” of these in the societies of Antiquity
and even in the civilised societies of modern times. The notion of “survivals” was
notably associated with the ethnologist E. B. Tylor. He de¿ned them as processes or
mores that had existed since the origin of humanity and were passed on, out of habit,
from one stage to the next in the evolution of societies. In modern times, they therefore
remained at varying degrees in different societies, depending on how far they had pro-
gressed. Tylor’s aim was to prove that all civilised peoples had once been “savages”.௘124
This approach