Max Muller's My Autobiography and Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Prof.the Rt.Hon. Friedrich Max Muller
Reviewed by H.H. Anniah Gowda

Quotable Quote:"WE MUST LEARN TO SEE A MEANING IN EVERYTHING"- Friedrich Max Muller in a letter to his son.

One of Max Muller's lectures at Cambridge, in 1882, was published under the significant title, India: What Can It Teach Us? His autobiography was published posthumously in 1910, and it is now reissued by Chaukhamba Orientalia, Varanasi, along with a biographical essay by his wife Georgina. Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Max Muller, P.C. is an outstanding addition to the limited biographical material on Muller.
Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who made himself known to the literary public at the age of 50-odd with his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is now an experienced writer. His Autobiography, written in an authentic Bengali style of English, is a most attractive account of his childhood and youth in rural and urban Bengal. It ends with a persuasive outline of Indian history. Apart from its style, its striking feature is its ambivalent attitude towards Britain and towards India. But though this offended many, the book could not be ignored, and its author was accepted gradually as a literary figure of the first rank.

Shortly afterwards, Chaudhuri went on a visit to England, and wrote A Passage to England, but that is a deviation. He resumed what appeared to be his vocation with The Continent of Circe: An Essay on the Peoples of India; in it he claims that he propounds a new theory of Indian history. Its quite unorthodox ethnology holds that the "brown" majority, as opposed to the "black" and "yellow" minorities are Aryan, and makes a good deal depend on that assumption. The climatic theory and the knowledge of India show up again in Scholar Extraordinary. Chaudhuri's gnomic, eccentric utterances and criticism of his countrymen have won him an audience abroad. In his latest book, though, he is careful not to hurt people. He shows that although he did not set foot in Europe till the age of 50 or so, he can write English with ease and elegance.

Max Muller is an excellent subject for a biographer. Chaudhuri works within the framework of Muller's autobiography and his wife's biography and hence his brisk chronological narrative, interspersed with lengthy quotations from earlier works, diary and letters. The book makes absorbing if somewhat breathless reading, all the more so in that Chaudhuri wastes little time weighting questions of factual experience. On the other hand he has a chance to pay his and his coutrymen's homage to one who unearthed the hidden gems of India in Sanskrit literature for display to the world.
Scholar Extraordinary is the story of Muller's thought and of his domestic life. It is divided into three parts - from part one emerges the young Max who shows scholarly proclivities, cultivates a love for music, bears the whips and scorns of time, studies philosophy and languages, and starts reading Sanskrit at Leipzig under Brockhaus. Having begun with simple grammar, he goes as far as the Rig Veda.
Chaudhuri discusses all the ramifications of Muller's scholarly interests and researches in Indian religion and philosophy. The young Muller's intellectual voyage is well charted, occasionally fixing him in the intellectual movement of the period. He swam along the German tide fashionable among the Oxford reformers of the nineteenth century. In 1848, Muller came to Oxford which became his spuritual home for about fifty years.

Part Two deals with Max Muller's work at Oxford: "Blessed is he who has found his work." He became Taylorian Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford and married Georgina Grenfell. Part Three discusses the dark and bright aspects of academic life at Oxford, the number of friends Muller cultivated, his fighting and losing an election for the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in 1860, his interest in India and the Indians he met, and his personal tragedy in the loss of his two daughters, his bearing the loss like a true ascetic Vanaprastha, and his death in 1900.

Pictures of nineteenth-century Oxford and of India emerge distinctly from the books under review. In one, Muller found his vocation and in another his spirit. The picture of Oxford's "dreaming spires" and warring Halls" is reconstructed by Chaudhuri who, like the hero, crosses the "stripling Thames," and lives in Boar's Hill to write about a man, simple, ambitious but scholarly. The printing of the Rig Veda, including the commentary of Sayana, with the financial assistance of the East India Company at the Oxford University Press, took Muller to Oxford, where he gradually endeared himself to the social circles there.
While his knowledge of Sanskrit earned Muller some secret enemies, his ability to play the piano made him popular. It was a social asset which earned him many invitations to dinner parties. His friend Victor Carus said that Muller would play violin and piano sonatas which kept his hearers spellbound. In his hands the sound of the piano became a poem in music.

As a German, Muller was not liked by the Conservative Anglican Churchmen. Newman, the leader of the Oxford Movement, considered Lutheranism and Calvinism heresies. This attitude had its effect on his failure in the election to the Boden Professorship. Muller had deep friendships with Palgrave and other mid-nineteenth century intellectuals: Stanley, Jowett, Arnold and Pattison.

Muller was shocked at the disrespect of the students towards their teachers at Oxford. In Germany, Professors were worshipped, and the students never questioned their ipse dixit. Muller found the constitution of the Oxford University, which had no government control, puzzling. Oxford did not know the Government nor did the Government know Oxford. However, Oxford grew on Muller as he patiently worked on the Rig Veda. His editorial labour and his deep knowledge of Sanskrit enabled him to claim the Taylorian Professorship in 1854. During these early years, the grind for Muller was very strenuous. His aim was also to trace the evolution of Indian religious and philosophical thought as demonstrated in the Vedas.

As his scholarship in Sanskrit literature deepened, Muller's English prose became lucid, and he made his name as an able speaker. He was invited to speak before the Queen, who listened to him with rapt attention, without even knitting! Chaudhuri's scholar grows without giving up his grip on wordly success. The campaign in the contest for the Boden Professorship between him and Monier Williams reveals that human nature is the same, in Oxford as in India. Although he did not get the chair, he chose to stay on at Oxford. It had done him good since the age of twenty-four in so many ways. It was in Oxford that his mental energy and loquacity found full expression. His addresses and writings fill twenty volumes, now mostly forgotten except for Chips from a German Workshop, which is occasionally consulted by academics.
Chaudhuri connects the scholar's life to his work and tells us that even at school Muller's ideal was that of a monk, undisturbed in his monastery, surrounded by his books and a few friends. The ascetic and the noble primitivism of the society in the Rig Veda aided him in his ideal, which did not preclude striving after worldly success. India had reached Europe through the Germanic Renaissance. Chaudhuri traces these movements and the powerful impact that India had on the spiritual and cultural life of Europe.

Indian influence was irresistible, and Muller moved to England in the middle of 1840 to edit the Rig Veda. He became deeply interested in the study of etymology. Popularizing the terms "Aryan Man" and "Aryan Race" through the study of language, he explored the mind of the earliest civilized man. The Aryan man had been Greek, Roman, German and Indian. When Muller refers to the Aryan race, he means no more than Aryan speech. In his heart he had an image of his beloved India. Many Indians, who had heard of his translations of Hitopadesha, Meghaduta, and his edition of the Rig Veda, Sayana's Commentary and his other lectures and essays believed sincerely that India was the land of his previous birth.

About his longing to visit the East in his younger days, Muller wrote: "I have had to give up many of these dreams but somehow one learns to see with the mind and imagination what we cannot see with the eyes." This is the typical view of a scholar devoted to the classical literature of India. He mistrusts the seen and trusts the unseen. The fact that he had no first-hand experience of India was thrown in his teeth by some Englishmen who did not respect his love for this country and his enthusiastic interpretation of Hindu civilization. It is difficult to believe and philosophic ideas of the Vedas if he had had direct knowledge of nineteenth-century India.

Muller had the artist's insight to pierce through the Hindu scriptures and discover their pure poetic essence. He put the study of the origins of language, thought, religion, philosophy and law or other human creations of the Vedic period on the same level as the literatures of Greece, Rome and Germany. His knowledge of classical literature was richly enhanced by his Indian acquaintances and correspondents: Dwarkanath Tagore, R.R. Deb, Devendranath Tagore, Keshab Chander Sen and a host of other scholars and religious reformers. With some of them his friendship was deep and abiding.

Strangely enough, Chaudhuri adds his own favourable comments to Muller's opinion of the Indians who reciprocated his feeling in abundant measure. Georgina Muller in her biography gives a letter from a middle-class Hindu in Madras who wrote to him on hearing that Muller was ill. His reactions were warm and heartfelt:
"Sunday was the mail day, on which English mail letters are delivered at Madras...The postman gave me a which the following lines were written: `Professor Max Muller is seriously ill and not able to attend to any letter.' When I read these lines tears trickled down my cheeks unconsciously. When I showed the card to my friends who spent the last days of their lives like mine in reading the Bhagavad Gita... They decided to have special service performed to God Sri Parthasarathy your name for complete recovery. The temple priest raised many objections to have our object accomplished, and the chief one of his objections was that he can't offer prayers and enchant manthrams to god in the name of one who is not a Hindu by birth...But, when one of our friends promised to pay ample remuneration for the purpose, he acceded to our request."

Muller and Georgina come sympathetically alive in the pages of Chaudhuri's book. His portrait is fully evoked: Muller possessed a gift for languages and for music, he had an artistic temperament, the soul of a great lover, and of an affectionate father. He had a life-long involvement with God. Chaudhuri takes note of his hero's less scholarly occupations at Oxford. The death of his daughter Mary in 1876 brought about the virtual end of his intellectual life. The hero suddenly withdraws and enters into telepathic communication with his dead daughter. He keeps a journal addressed to her, to keep her presence alive. Like Georgina's parents, Muller was unwilling to give permission to his second daughter to marry an impecunions don, though he had been one himself. Later, he relented, but continued to pour moral precepts on her. The unhappy daughter died in childbirth.

The journal ends with the telegram announcing the death of his second daughter pasted in. The apostle of Aryan idealism was beaten into submission by a cruel fate. His karma proved too strong to bear, and he wrote to his son: "We must learn to see a meaning in everything, we must believe that as it was, it was right."

Chaudhuri set out to tell a story of the rise, glory and decline of one whose devotion of Vedic literature was unparalleled. The scholar's existence is evoked in fluent prose with a sharp eye for the history of India and of Europe. Only occasionally does Chaudhuri yield to the temptation of overwriting. He has summarized a mass of facts and arguments with great skill, and written about them with appropriate lucidity. The biographer remains throughout in a mood of respectful admiration. Scholar Extraordinary is a coherent and colourful tapestry: a grateful literary garland from India.

H.H.Anniah Gowda was a Reader in English at the University of Mysore, Editor of The Literary Half-Yearly, author of a Kannada version of George Orwell's Animal Farm ( under the title Mruga Prabhutva and of The Revival of English Poetic Drama