F. Max Müller, Linguistic studies of religion

F. Max Müller, Natural Religion (1888-1892) – http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=127

F. Max Müller, Preface to Sacred Books of the East (1879) – http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm

When Max Müller delivered the first ever Gifford Lectures in 1888, he already had an impressive C.V. Müller’s scientific approach to language helped pave the way for modern linguistics. He “discovered” many of the world’s major language families, systematically tracing connections between languages as different as Sanskrit and English (Indo-European). He presented European readers with some of the first serious translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada. His 50-volume edited series Sacred Books of the East brought together some of the best Orientalist scholarship of the day, convincing westerners that Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Islam (which he called Mohammedanism), Buddhism, and Hinduism had their own “Bibles.” His reputation has justifiably suffered in our own time at the hands of postcolonial theory, but his work is indispensible for any interested in the disciplinary history of religious studies. In some ways, Müller represents the most repugnant form of Orientalism: completely oblivious to his work’s relationship to European imperialism (e.g. he heartily thanks the British East India Company for giving him manuscripts of the Upanishads), Müller truly believed that his project leveled the playing field between religions and created a basis for fair comparison. In the preface to Sacred Books of the East, he writes: “If some of those who read and mark these translations learn how to discover some such precious grains in the sacred books of other nations, though hidden under heaps of rubbish, our labour will not have been in vain, for there is no lesson which at the present time seems more important than to learn that in every religion there are such precious grains.” Every religion holds precious grains in heaps of rubbish… yikes.

Müller attempts to establish a scientific system for studying religion by linking religion with language. There’s a fine distinction worth noting here: Müller links religion to language, not to texts. Though his systematic approach to the documentation and translation of sacred texts still drives much of religious studies today, Müller himself understood the study of religious texts as only one necessary part of the historical study of religion and language—if there’s one thing textual studies do well, after all, it is to document miniscule changes in language over time. But Müller’s scope is much bigger than just textual study, for he sees texts as a window into the “purer” data provided by ancient minds. He aims at nothing less than discovering the basic essence of religion, and uses texts to remove the accretions that have built over time. For Müller, religion forms part of human nature—it belongs to the natural world, to humanity’s capabilities as creatures in nature. It begins with the basic experiences of sensation, perception, conception, and naming. As many a pot-smoking high school student has discovered, we perceive that the sky is blue because we have a word “blue” that names a particular concept (not red, green, yellow, etc.). Müller goes one step further, asserting that we understand why the sky sometimes seems to hurt us if we attach religious significance to the word “sky.” Religion, according to Müller, helps us to make sense of the infinite in our finite experience, allows us to conceptualize and explain things like the boundlessness of the horizon, the world in a grain of sand, and elemental causes: “Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion” (lecture 20). Müller argues that we can only achieve accurate comparison and classification of religions by beginning with this “natural religion,” since it levels the field between bookless religions and religions of the book, individual religions (with a founder) and non-individual religions (no founder), primitive religions and advanced religions.

Review by A.T. Coates