The most critical outcome of research on ancient India has been the discovery of the subject called Indology. Scholars of the occidental world worked hard to unearth the wealth of extraordinary wisdom of the orient. They found India a treasure trove as well as a perfect destination for their purpose of gathering knowledge. So ancient yet so rich and fresh, the accumulated fund of social, political, material, intellectual, philosophical, philological, ethical, religious, spiritual and myriad other matters of substantial knowledge kept the best minds of Europe busy on the subject.
Priceless works of India’s past were available which would otherwise have remained hidden and unknown to the world at large. These Indologists have made us proud of our distinguished achievements and have also bailed us out of a sense of diffidence we were suffering from due to our ignorance. The love of Swami Vivekananda ~ whom Nirad C Chaudhuri had described as “one of the greatest of modern Indians” ~ for India made him an outstanding student of Indology. He could very well be ranked with them for his absolutely clear perception about the Indian race and civilization.
His intellect was razor sharp, and honesty unassailable. To that can be added his robust erudition, in order to be able to penetrate into the real depths of Indology. His insightful refutations of biased and motivated views of some Western Orientalists were remarkable. For example, in the Paris Historical Congress, held at Sorbornne on 7 September 1900, Swamiji proved the German Orientalist, Gustav Oppert. incorrect with a “rebuttal”, one “who tried to trace the origin of the Shalagram- Shila and Shiva-Linga to mere phallicism”, in a paper he presented there.
Citing evidence from Atharva-Veda Samhita, Swamiji observed that the idea of Shiva-Linga had its origin in the Vedic Yupa-Stambha. Because of the overwhelming influence of Buddhism, the Hindus borrowed the idea of the Buddhist Stupa and imposed the same upon Yupa-Stambha as a symbol for their Great God Shiva, but no as a consequence of phallic worship. Similarly, Swamiji said that Shalagrama-Shila was a “natural stone”, first used by the Buddhists as Dhatu-Garva, which gradually found its way into Vaishnavism as an image for the God Narayana. Both were imagined and worshiped as pratikas by Hindus in the period of later Buddhism. He challenged the wrong notion that Buddha was prior to Krishna and that Gita was a later creation later than Mahabharata.
He believed that Krishna’s worship was much older than the advent of Buddha and, since Gita is linguistically identical with Mahabharata, it must be, if not older, contemporary to Mahabharata. He argued, though Gita reconciles all the prevalent religious creeds, but never mentions Buddhism or Buddha. Besides, he also refuted in his lecture the claim of the Orientalists that Greek influence is manifest over everything Indian. He said unless one Hindu who had known Greek could be brought forward and vice versa, one ought not to talk even of Greek influence on Indian science and culture. On the other hand, Swamiji held the distinguished Sanskritist, Prof. Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) always in high esteem, although he differed with him on certain issues.
Praising him on the publication of his outstanding work, Swamiji wrote: “Professor Max Mueller is the leading figure among Western Sanskrit scholars. The Rig-Veda upon which nobody could set his eyes as a whole, has now been beautifully printed, and can be read by the general public, as a result of years of labour on the part of the professor.” Swamiji compared him with Sayanacharya who famously wrote a commentary on the Vedas. The accomplishment of such an arduous task by Max Mueller also infuenced the general public the world over.
In his Sahitya Academy Award winning book, Scholar Extraordinary, Nirad C Chaudhuri rightly pointed out: “Nothing could be more sensible, if Max Mueller’s work on the Rig-Veda were only for fellow- scholars. But it was not. He edited it to make it widely known both in the West and the East, and with the more practical motive of influencing the religious life of contemporary Hindus.” Swamiji visited Oxford University and met Max Mueller on 28 May 1896. He published an account on the visit in Brahmavadin of 6 June 1896. Their meeting was extremely cordial and intimate.
The Professor was so pleased to see a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, whom he respected so much. Swamiji was deeply impressed by the Professor. They were in touch with each other through correspondence before. Max Mueller wrote a book on Sri Ramakrishna titled, Ramakrishna and His Sayings, for which he sought material from Swamiji. He provided it to him with the assistance of other disciples, and that marked the beginning of their cordial relationship. However, Max Muller was not focused on Sri Ramakrishna’s concept of religious harmony (dharma-samanwaya), which Sri Ramakrishna had discovered after arriving at the same goal going through different paths of Hinduism, including the ways of Jnana and Bhakti, as well as through the different avenues of other world religions by dint of his complex and intense sadhanas over 12 years.
Max Muller learnt everything academically, and had never come to India, although he cherished a desire throughout his life. By theoretical knowledge alone and no interaction at all with any highly advanced sadhaka, one obviously cannot understand a highly spiritually evolved soul like Sri Ramakrishna, however great a scholar he might be. Max Mueller had no inkling of Sri Ramakrishna’s going beyond Jnana to be established in the state of a Vijnani, from where he could proclaim the truth of harmony of religions with perfect conviction and ease. The idea of Vijnana, as Sri Ramakrishna interpreted it, threw a new light which was an illuminating means to keep all contradictions among various philosophical views at bay for reconciliation.
Max Mueller by mistake entertained the idea that Ramakrishna’s way was exclusively that of the way of Bhakti, not that of the way of Knowledge or Jnana. He therefore wrote: “Vivekananda and the other followers of Ramakrishna ought, however, to teach their followers how to distinguish between the perfervid utterances of their teacher, Ramakrishna an enthusiastic Bhakta (devotee)…. and the clear and dry style of the Sutras of Badarayana. However, as long as these devoted preachers keep true to the Upanishads, the Sutras, and the recognized commentaries, whether of Samkara or Ramanuja, I wish them all the success they deserve by their unselfish devotion and their high ideals.” In fact, Max Muller could not “influence the Hindu revival in the way he desired”.
He therefore tried another way. “Towards the very end of his life he tried to persuade that section of Hindu monotheists who owed their inspiration and zeal largely to Christianity, or at all events to Christ, to declare themselves formally as Christian,” wrote Nirad C Chaudhuri. Max Mueller died on 28 October 1900 at a ripe age of 77. Offering a glowing tribute to his memory, Swamiji wrote: “There are a number of great souls in the West, who undoubtedly are well-wishers of India, but I am not aware of one in Europe who is a greater well-wisher. He is not only a well-wisher, but also a deep believer in Indian philosophy and religion.”
Magnanimously overlooking his misplaced view regarding him as well as his Master, Swamiji unequivocally complimented the Professor for his unprecedented service to India. Similarly, for another outstanding 18th century Sanskritist Sir William Jones (1746-1804) Swamiji had an unqualified respect and admiration. Jones came to India in 1783 to serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Since the civil law of the country was in Sanskrit, he learnt the language under the tutelage of traditional pundits and acquired mastery. Beside applying his acumen in Sanskrit in his profession, he used it also for translating ancient Sanskrit works into English, giving an exposure of India’s ancient wisdom hitherto unknown to the rest of the world.
(The writer is with Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)