Max Müller and H. P. Blavatsky
Comparative Religion in the 19th Century

By Bas Rijken van Olst

Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) and H. P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) were contemporaries and both contributed much to the discovery of Oriental religions and traditions in general, those of India in particular. Blavatsky frequently quotes from Muller's works, though she does not always agree with him. Max Muller, a German Sanskritist who spent most of his working life as professor of comparative philology at Oxford, is well known for publishing the first critical edition of the Rig Veda, and he was also the moving spirit behind the fifty volumes of The Sacred Books of the East, a series of annotated translations of important texts from the religions of the Orient.

In the Introduction to his biography on the life and works of Max Muller, Lourens P. van den Bosch says:

I try to show that specific religious motives were at the basis of all his work.
In a reflective moment near the end of his life, Muller stated that the thread connecting all his labours could be clearly distinguished: it was the thread that linked the origins of thought and language to the origins of religion and mythology. "The history of man," he said, "begins not with flints, rock temples and pyramids, but with language. The second stage is that of myths as the first attempts at translating the phenomena of nature into thought. The third stage is that of religion or the recognition of moral powers and in the end of One moral power behind and above nature. The fourth and last stage is philosophy, or a critique of the powers of reason in their legitimate working on the data of experience."* These words clearly show how much Muller had been influenced by the search for origins and the discourse on evolutionary theories as propounded by Darwin and his followers.
. . . Muller aimed . . . to give Hindus a better understanding of their past.
. . . Muller defended a thoroughly historical understanding of religion, including Christianity, and proclaimed that Christians should be fully aware of the human yearning lying at the heart of all religions.
Friedrich Max Muller: A Life Devoted to the Humanities, Brill, 2002, p. xvi-xviii
*F. Max Muller, Contributions to the Science of Mythology, London, 1897-8.

Max Muller's father, Wilhelm Muller, is remembered for his lyrical poetry embodied in Die Schöne Mullerin (The Beautiful Miller's Daughter) and Die Winterreise (Winter Journey), immortalized in the music of Franz Schubert. Max's mother, Adelheid von Basedow, came from an upper-class German family; her grandfather was a prominent liberal theologian. This background gave Muller the opportunity to study philology and philosophy, first in Leipzig and later in Berlin and Paris. He took an interest in Spinoza's concept of God with its pantheistic implications, and in 1844 wrote his thesis on the third book of Spinoza's Ethics. "Later in life he returned to these pantheistic ideas, and elaborated them in his Gifford Lectures on natural religion between 1889 and 1892. In these he introduced the word theosophy, meaning the highest knowledge of God within the reach of the human mind. . . . The highest lesson of theosophy was realised in the perception of the eternal oneness of the human and divine nature" (Van den Bosch, p. 25).

Max Müller

In 1860 Horace Wilson, Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, died. Muller had always had aspirations for this prestigious position and put himself up as a candidate. The chair had been founded by Colonel J. Boden "being of the opinion that a more general and critical knowledge of the Sanskrit language will be a means of enabling his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion, by disseminating a knowledge of the sacred scriptures amongst them, more effectual than all other means whatsoever."* It is interesting to note that the spreading of Christianity was the primary goal for this Chair for Sanskrit. At the time the Church played an important role in appointing university professors. To appoint the new Boden professor, a convention was held on December 7th of that year, where a great number of evangelical country clergy, whose assistance had been enlisted, appeared in Oxford to cast their votes. The other candidate, Monier-Williams, was elected by a margin of 223 out of a total of 1,433 votes. Muller's views were considered too liberal, and Monier-Williams was expected to support the clergy in their evangelical approach. However, in October 1868 a new Chair for Comparative Philology was founded in Oxford, with Max Muller as its first occupant.

*Chaudhuri, Scholar Extraordinary, p. 221

Muller's concept of religion, although still firmly based in Christianity, had a far wider scope than that of most of his Christian contemporaries. In 1874 at a meeting of the Congress of Orientalists he stated

that all religions spring from the same sacred soil, the human heart; that all are quickened by the same divine spirit, the still small voice; and that, though the outward forms of religion may change, may wither and decay, yet, as long as man is what he is and what he has been, he will postulate again and again the Infinite as the very condition of the Finite, he will yearn for something which the world cannot give, he will feel his weakness and dependence, and in that weakness and dependence discover the deepest sources of his hope, and trust, and strength. "Congress of Orientalists," Chips from a German Workshop 4:329

In The Secret Doctrine (1:xli) Blavatsky quotes another example of the wide scope of Muller's religion when he says: "The sins of Islam are as worthless as the dust of Christianity. On the day of resurrection both Muhammadans and Christians will see the vanity of their religious doctrines. Men fight about religion on earth; in heaven they shall find out that there is only one true religion the worship of God's Spirit." Blavatsky then continues: "In other words 'There is no religion (or law) higher than truth' 'Satyat nasti paro dharmah' the motto of the Maharajah of Benares, adopted by the Theosophical Society." Elsewhere she shows that the Golden Rule can be found in almost

any book on comparative religion, say Moncure Conway's Sacred Anthology or Max Muller's Introduction to the Science of Religion. On page 249 of the latter we read . . .
"According to Buddha, the motive of all our actions should be pity or love for our neighbor.
"And as in Buddhism, so even in the writing of Confucius we find again what we value most in our own religion. I shall quote but one saying of the Chinese sage:
"What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do that to others." Collected Writings 13:168

Blavatsky frequently expressed her gratitude for the careful research done by scholars: "And it is also due to the unremitting labours of such Orientalists as Sir W. Jones, Max Muller, Burnouf, Colebrooke, Haug, de Saint-Hilaire, and so many others, that the [Theosophical] Society, as a body, feels equal respect and veneration for Vedic, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and other old religions of the world; and, a like brotherly feeling towards its Hindu, Sinhalese, Parsi, Jain, Hebrew, and Christian members as individual students of 'self,' of nature, and of the divine in nature" (ibid., 2:104).

H. P. Blavatsky

No doubt Muller took an interest in the work of the Theosophical Society and its leaders. For instance, Olcott had visited Muller in Oxford in 1888 and corresponded with him on many issues. According to Van den Bosch:

Muller was of the opinion that Blavatsky had not understood Indian religions at all and done much mischief. She was, according to him, deceived by others and had been carried away by her own imagination. Her teaching had nothing to do "with the venerable name [theosophy], so well known among early Christian thinkers, as expressing the highest knowledge of God within the reach of the human mind." He argued that her secret doctrines were contrary to Indian religious tradition. There was no esoteric interpretation of the Shastras and other ancient Indian scriptures that could possibly support Blavatsky's theosophy. But Muller's warnings were of no avail. "Unfortunately, the only thing that the large public admires in India," he wrote to Malabari, "is the folly of Esoteric Buddhism and Theosophy, falsely so called. What a pity it is that such absurdities, nay, such frauds, should be tolerated!" pp. 160-1

In the New Review of January 1891 Muller uses similar words: "Who has not suffered lately from Theosophy and Esoteric Buddhism? . . . Esoteric Buddhism has no sweet odour in the nostrils of Sanskrit and Pali scholars. They try to keep aloof from it, and to avoid all controversy with its prophets and prophetesses. But it seems hard on them that they should be blamed for not speaking out, when their silence says really all that is required." To this Blavatsky responded: "Émile Burnouf did speak out, however, and the readers of the Revue des Deux Mondes know what he said for Theosophy. Another eminent Orientalist also accepted the hospitality of Lucifer's pages lately, and Professor Max Muller must now pay the penalty of refusing to listen to Harpocrates, and of taking his finger from his lips" (Collected Writings 13:104-5).

Muller's views may have been broad, still he could not fully understand the crux of Blavatsky's writings having a scope far beyond his concept of theosophy. One of her main goals was

to prove, by tracing and explaining the blinds in the works of ancient Indian, Greek, and other philosophers of note, and also in all the ancient Scriptures the presence of an uninterrupted esoteric allegorical method and symbolism; to show . . . that with the keys of interpretation as taught in the Eastern Hindo-Buddhistic Canon of Occultism, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Sutras, the Epic poems of India and Greece, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Scandinavian Eddas, as well as the Hebrew Bible, and even the classical writings of Initiates (such as Plato, among others) all, from first to last, yield a meaning quite different from their dead letter texts. This is flatly denied by some of the foremost scholars of the day. They have not got the keys, ergo no such keys can exist. According to Dr. Max Muller no pandit of India has ever heard of an esoteric doctrine (Gupta-Vidya, nota bene). In his Edinburgh Lectures the Professor made almost as cheap of Theosophists and their interpretations, as some learned Shastris let alone initiated Brahmins make of the learned German philosopher himself. Collected Writings 13:146

In his Edinburgh Lectures Muller discarded the possibility of the existence of such a key, "by pointing to the Hindu Shastras and Pandits, who know nothing of such Esotericism." Blavatsky remarks: "The learned Sanskrit scholar stated in so many words that there was no hidden meaning, no Esoteric element or 'blinds,' either in the Puranas or the Upanishads. Considering that the word 'Upanishad' means, when translated, the 'Secret Doctrine,' the assertion is, to say the least, extraordinary." And in a footnote she continues: "The majority of the Pandits know nothing of the Esoteric Philosophy now, because they have lost the key to it; yet not one of these, if honest, would deny that the Upanishads, and especially the Puranas, are allegorical and symbolical; nor that there still remain in India a few great scholars who could, if they would, give them the key to such interpretations. Nor do they reject the actual existence of Mahatmas initiated Yogis and Adepts even in this age of Kali-Yuga" (Collected Writings 14:3-4&n). She reported that Vedic scholar Dayananda Sarasvati reacted to similar remarks made by Muller by commenting that if the philologist

were a Brahmin, and came with me, I might take him to a gupta cave (a secret crypt) near Okhee Math, in the Himalayas, where he would soon find out that what crossed the Kalapani (the black waters of the ocean) from India to Europe were only the bits of rejected copies of some passages from our sacred books. There was a "primitive revelation," and it still exists; nor will it ever be lost to the world, but will reappear; though the Mlechchhas [foreigners] will of course have to wait. The Secret Doctrine 1:xxx

Blavatsky and Muller differed in opinion as to the antiquity of the Vedas. In the 19th century the Western world saw an explosive increase in scientific knowledge. Many Asiatic texts were translated for the first time. "Theologians and scientists had been thrown in confusion and often bitter conflict after the publication in 1830-33 of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which gave irrefutable evidence of earth's immense age. This was followed in 1859 by Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and The Descent of Man in 1871 which purported to trace man's origin to an ancient form which diverged from the Catarrhine monkey stock arousing a controversy still very much alive today."*

*Grace F. Knoche, To Light a Thousand Lamps, p. 5.

In this environment Max Muller worked on the publication of the Rig Veda. In a prospectus proposing a German translation Muller explained the importance of this "oldest book of the world" for world history. According to him this Veda would give insight into the life of man in his primitive state, with his most basic ideas, expressed in his most primitive language. Baron von Bunsen, Prussian ambassador to St. James' Court in London, encouraged Muller to spend all his energy on the critical edition of the Veda. In his own studies Von Bunsen "attempted to develop a philosophy of religion in which the gradual development of the idea of God was traced in the course of history. Von Bunsen hoped that the Veda might prove to be fruitful for a study of the initial stages of this idea. 'To trace the firm path of God through the stream of ages' was according to Muller the dream of Von Bunsen's youth and the toil of his old age."

Perhaps Muller was influenced by Von Bunsen's ideas in trying to settle the question of the antiquity of the Vedas and whether they were or were not older than the Old Testament. In his Introduction to the Science of Religion (pp. 278-9) he reasons as follows:

Do you still wonder at polytheism or at mythology? Why, they are inevitable. They are, if you like, a parler enfantin [children's language] of religion. But the world has its childhood, and when it was a child it spoke as a child, it understood as a child, it thought as a child . . . The fault rests with us, if we insist on taking the language of children for the language of men . . . The language of antiquity is the language of childhood . . . The parler enfantin in religion is not extinct . . . as, for instance, the religion of India . . . p. 36

Considering Max Muller's suggestion that the earliest time that the collection of Vedic hymns was finished was in 1100 or 1200 BCE, we must conclude that he thought mankind was like a child 3,000 years ago and has since then developed into the adult of the 19th century with a fully developed analytical and philosophical mind. At the end of her article "Antiquity of the Vedas," Blavatsky comments:

It really seems the duty of the eminent Sanskritist and Lecturer on Comparative Theology to get out of this dilemma. Either the Rig-Veda hymns were composed but 3,000 years ago, and, therefore, cannot be expressed in the "language of childhood" man having lived in the glacial period but the generation which composed them must have been composed of adults, presumably as philosophical and scientific in the knowledge of their day, as we are in our own; or, we have to ascribe to them an immense antiquity in order to carry them back to the days of human mental infancy. And, in the latter case, Professor Max Muller will have to withdraw a previous remark, expressing the doubt "whether some of the portions of the Old Testament may not be traced back to the same or even an earlier date than the oldest hymns of the Vedas." Collected Writings 2:115-16

In the 19th century Max Muller and H. P. Blavatsky helped the Western world in opening up new horizons of thought. This process continued in the 20th century and is still going on today. Muller was perhaps one of the first scholars to attempt a comparative study of religions, although his ideas were still very much rooted in his highly idealistic theological views. Today through the efforts of Orientalists like Max Muller many texts of the world's religions are available to Western readers who can now analyze and compare these systems of thought for themselves.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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