Friedrich Max Müller and the Sacred Books of the East

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Arie L. Molendijk
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many scholars of religion have some acquaintance with the series Sacred Books of the East (hereafter SBE), comprising fifty volumes published by Oxford University Press between 1879 and 1910 and edited by Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), one of the founders of the modern comparative study of religion. Although most of the translations comprised in the series have long been superseded (they are available online), and are therefore useful mostly as sources for the history of the study of religions, the project, for better or worse, formed a cornerstone of colonial-era encounters between Western and other societies. To the extent that the modern study of religion has until recently had the study of texts at its center, such that indigenous informants could be characterized as “walking manuscripts” (117), this series is surely an important reason why. That is perhaps its most important legacy.

This little monograph by Arie L. Molendijk addresses the background, origins, and impact of the series. It is partially based on archival research in the Max Müller Papers at the Bodleian Library, although those papers lack most of the documents directly pertaining to the SBE series. The first chapter sketches Müller’s life, with an emphasis on his network of connections as a prominent public intellectual of the late Victorian era. The second discusses how Müller first began formulating the aims of the series and, as both scholar and entrepreneur, went about convincing wealthy donors and Oxford University Press to underwrite the considerable costs. Molendijk here asks where Müller may have gotten the idea for a series of translations of “sacred books” and comes up with three possible stimuli: Jean-Pierre Guillaume Pauthier’s Les livres sacrés de l’Orient (1840); Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reference in his essay on books to the “Bibles of the world, or the sacred books of humanity”; and Moncure Conway’s Sacred Anthology: A Book of Ethnical Scriptures (1874), an anthology used in Anglophone Unitarian churches. Tellingly, the India Office of the British empire agreed to underwrite half the cost of production of the volumes on “the five great Oriental Religions” (53). Among the other issues discussed in this chapter is Müller’s selection of traditions and texts, which has often been criticized.

Chapter 3 touches on the ideas about religious texts that informed the SBE series. Other than the notion that the primary data of religions are to be found in texts, the central idea structuring the series was the Reformation-derived premise that ancient texts enshrined the “pure” origins of religions, and that they needed to be stripped of the accretions of later tradition and the distortions of “priestly” corruption. Another key notion was that “the East,” and specifically India, was the source of much of Western civilization—allowing Western scholars to reclaim it as their own. Through the SBE translations, Müller said from the podium to the Second Congress of Orientalists in London in 1874, “the curtain between the West and the East has been lifted, and our old forgotten home stands before us again in bright colours and definite outlines” (105). The sacred books of the East matter because they lie at the origins of the West. Molendijk here also devotes a section to Müller’s use of the term “Aryan,” concluding that “the anti-Judaist streak in this train of thought cannot be denied” (115). Chapter 4 rather hastily treats some of Müller’s intellectual methods, including what was termed in the 19th century “the comparative method” and Müller’s famous view that mythology amounts to a “disease of language,” without delving very deeply into their sources or their uses. Chapter 5 tries to discern the religious vision that underlay the SBE and Müller’s other projects, while chapter 6 briefly assesses the series’ impact. An afterword points up the central paradox of the series: on the one hand, it was based on the conviction that ancient Eastern writings held crucial relevance for modern, that is to say Western, people; yet, on the other hand, their mere translation did not suffice to make their relevance clear. For that, some sort of interpretation was needed.

This book is primarily useful in providing some of the background that informed the making of the SBE series. It is less successful in providing a critical analysis of the intellectual principles on which the series was based or an assessment of its legacy in the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ford Campany is Professor of Asian and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arie L. Molendijk is Professor of History of Christianity and Philosophy at the University of Groningen. He studied Theology, Philosophy, and Drama at the University of Leiden. Molendijk has extensively published in the history of ideas, in particular Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Theology, Religious studies, and Philosophy.


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