German grammarian, Orientalist, mythographer, Friedrich Max Muller, better known simply as Max Muller was born on December 6th, 1823 to Wilhelm Muller and Adelheide Muller. Muller’s parents, who were already well known and respected themselves, gave birth to and raised him and his older sister, Augusta, in a small town called Dessau, in the capital of Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau, located today in Germany. Muller’s father was an esteemed poet, with one of his poems even being set to the very well known songs Die Schone Mullerin and Die Winterreise, also known as The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter and The Winter Journey, composed by Franz Schubert (New world Encyclopedia) Muller’s mother, Adelheid, was the oldest daughter to one of the chief ministers of Anhalt-Dessau, Adolf von Basedow. Sadly, Adelheide would become a widow before Max and Augusta were old enough to comprehend their father’s passing. Even though their parents’ marriage only lasted six short years, the Muller children would have to learn to live with the grief of their father’s sudden passing as well as their emotionally unstable mother. As a result, they lived in the shadow of their father’s death, and their whole life became dominated by their mother’s sorrow (Bosch 11).
As a young child, Muller shared his father’s passion for poetry and music. However, in his later years, when Muller decided to expand his knowledge and attend Leipzig University, he chose a different pattern of thought and completed his PhD. in philosophy. Even though Muller achieved his doctorate of philosophy, he still expressed a love for language. After having a brief introduction to Greek and Latin, Muller changed his direction to more oriental focused languages, stating in his unfinished autobiography, “It seemed to me more and more to narrow a sphere” (Bosch 22). For this reason, Muller changed his path and started learning more about Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and the language he is most well known for, Sanskrit. Looking back on Muller’s career, it can be assumed that he became disinterested with the common languages of Greek and Latin because anyone could study those languages, so he changed his direction to more complex and mysterious foreign languages. Muller was even said to believe that the study of ancient Sanskrit would lead him back to the common origin of the Indo-European people (Bosch 8). Throughout Muller’s time at Leipzig University, he took many different philosophy and language classes. He met many prestigious instructors and professors, but the one who seems to influence many of Muller’s early studies is Hermann Brockhaus. Brockhaus started his career as a professor at Leipzig University the same year that Muller began his studies, and he became the first professor of Sanskrit to teach at the university (Bosch 22)
In 1844, only one year after completing his PhD., Muller followed German philosopher Friedrich Schelling to Berlin, where he began to translate the latter part of the Vedas known as the Upanisads. While rendering these divine texts, Muller continued to expand his knowledge by continuing his study of Sanskrit, this time under the direction of another well-known scholar Franz Bopp (Bosch 27). Being a real scholar, Muller, during his time in Berlin, also completed and published his first of many translations, translating a collection of Indian moral tales called The Hitopadesa to German, which he dedicated to one of his many influences, Hermann Brockhaus. Muller was known as a very intellectual man within the professional community, which meant he had to improve his knowledge continuously. As a result, in 1845, Muller packed up and moved to Paris, France, following a very well known Vedic intellectual, Eugene Burnouf (Bosch 29). Burnouf, whose main topic of the study was the very well known Vedas, would later go on to encourage Muller to translate the Rig Veda ultimately.
After he settled down in Paris, Muller began to notice his expenses were becoming far too costly, and the money that his mother had collected up for him was running out fast. Living in a flat graciously provided to him by a friend named Baron von Hagedorn, Muller began to live as inexpensively as feasible, avoiding auditoriums and cafes since they were costly, especially since he was a foreigner. Muller, even at one point, wrote to his mother saying, “With 12000 francs a year one could live here nicely; I am afraid I shall hardly work my income up to that. I am, on the whole, well, though I must live most economically and avoid every expense that is not actually necessary” (Bosch 30). Although broke, and working long, exhausting hours at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Muller still found time to attend the courses of Eugene Burnouf, accompanied by two other Sanskrit students, Theodore Goldstucker and Rudolph Roth. Together, the three of them studied the hymns from the first book of the Rig Veda in small classes led by Professor Burnouf. (Bosch 30) Combined with Muller’s initiative as well as his knowledge, Burnouf encouraged Muller to translate the complete Rig Veda. Burnouf reminding him, “Don’t publish extracts from the commentary; if you do that, you will publish what is easy to read and leave out what is difficult” (Bosch 31). Even still, Muller faced the problem of finances after becoming discouraged with the uncooperative and unfavourable responses from the publishers themselves.
Still trying to find a publisher, Muller wrote to many different people in London, Germany, and Russia trying to find a noteworthy person to give him the funds needed to publish his book. Finally, after months of searching, Otto Boehtlingk, who happened to also study Sanskrit, became very interested in helping Muller out financially. After Muller had found out that the contract between the two scholars would benefit Boehtlingk more than himself, Muller made the conscious and hard choice to keep looking for a publisher. Taking a precarious chance, Muller decided to use up the last of his funds to travel to London, where he met with Horace Hayman Wilson, Boden Professor of Sanskrit studies and Librarian of the East India House (Bosch 34). Muller would later go on to dedicate his book entitled A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature to Wilson, who he called “his pupil and friend” (see Muller’s dedication page). Wilson, who Muller had been corresponding with for quite some time, consented to help Muller out as much as he could, and their initial three-week project turned into a project of a lifetime, with Muller permanently moving to London.
Finally, after a long and unpleasant wait, Muller got his “Grand edition of the Rig Veda” published in 1849. Muller would go on to marry his dedicated wife, Georgina Muller-Grenfell, whose father deliberately banned the two from getting married years before (Bosch 14). In the years to come, Max would experience many more successes, including the birth of his son Wilhelm Max Muller, becoming a professor of comparative philology at Oxford University, and translating many more well known Sanskrit texts. Looking at a few of his later writings, one can genuinely see that Muller continued to expand his knowledge until the day he died. Muller dedicated a large portion of his life to translating a portion of five books out of a fifty-volume book series entitled Sacred Books of The East (New World Encyclopedia). Being the editor-in-chief, this series alone made Muller one of the most respected people in India, and to this day, Muller is still regarded as a friend of India (Stone 4).
Throughout Muller’s life, he had many significant accomplishments, whether in his personal or professional life. The trials and tribulations that he received in his early life compared to his accomplishments later in life can be seen as inspirational to many. Muller indeed had an intense devotion to his education and career, one could say that all of us strive to have something similar. Max Muller, sadly would never get to see the impact he left on religion and language, but the effects can unquestionably be seen throughout the religious studies community.
Bosch, L. van den. (2002). Friedrich Max Müller: a life devoted to the Humanities. Leiden: Brill.
“Müller, Friedrich Max. (1823–1900).” In The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Jr. Buswell, and Donald S. Jr. Lopez. Princeton University Press, 2013. http://ezproxy.uleth.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/prdb/muller_friedrich_max_1823_1900/0?institutionId=2649
Müller, Friedrich Max 1860 A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature So Far as it Illustrates the Primitive Religion of the Brahmans by Max Muller, London: Williams and Norgate.
Müller, Friedrich Max, and Hermann Oldenberg (1891) Vedic Hymns: Hymns to the Maruts, Rudra, Vâyu, and Vâta, translated by F. Max Müller. Vol. 32. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Max Müller,” New World Encyclopedia, //www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Max_M%C3%BCller&oldid=1014378 (accessed February 3, 2020).
Stone, Jon, ed, The Essential Max Müller: On language, mythology, and religion. Springer, 2016.
Related topics for further investigation
The Rig Veda
The Sacred Books of The East
A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature
Vedic Hymns: Hymns to the Maruts, Rudra, Vâyu, and Vâta
Buddhist Mahayana Texts
Horace Hayman Wilson
The Sanskrit Language
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
This article was written by Azlyn Olson (February 2020), who is solely responsible for its content.