Rammohan to Ramakrishna by F. Max Muller – Lest We Forget!

Countries have habits. Our country has a habit of either believing too strongly in somebody or not believing a word of the person. Whether a person is truthful is a thing to be analyzed only much later when someone else who can have a greater command on our belief system appears on the scene. Many nations have a national habit of believing only their own. Other nations have the habit of believing anything that is imported. Few countries can maintain a balance between the two and analyze.

When we speak of Germany, the first few images that flash across our mind would probably be those of Hitler, the nazi HakenKreuz (swastika), Marxism, Cars, Machines and now perhaps the revolutionary immigration policies and the leader of the country – Angela Merkel. While to have all such visuals has no trouble, there are a few visages that must be brought back to the popular imagination and understand why Germany as a country has been a great gift to humanity. While one can get fatigued of counting the achievements of this country, there is a name that will reverberate in every such discourse, every such daunting attempt at sizing up the contributions of Germany.

Friedrich Max Muller was one of the first and finest western scholars to get drawn to the eastern part of the world and worked on numerous translations and books to introduce and sensitize the western world to the ideas and ideals of the Orient. While initially opposed by the conservatives of our country, most of his works are now regarded as the golden gates that an Indologist must pass through to understand India and India’s sacred literature. I read Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings by Max Muller as a young boy thanks to my father who is a voracious reader and has been instrumental in nurturing in me a love for books. In one of my inane wanderings amidst the shelves of my workplace library, my friend pointed out a book to me – Rammohan to Ramakrishna by F. Max Muller. Looking quaint, the pages were yellowed, dog-eared and a couple of them had already started the desertion process from the book.

 

“I have known for many years the beauties of its literature, the bold flights of its native philosophy, the fervid devotion of its ancient religion and these together seem to me to give a much truer picture of what India really was, and is still meant to be, in the history of the world…” – Max Muller.

 

This book starts on an autobiographical note –

“I well remember when I was at school, one of my copybooks had a large picture of Benaras on the outside. It was a very rough picture, but I can still see the men, women, and children as they stepped down the ghats to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. That picture caught my fancy and set me dreaming. What did I know of India at that time? Nothing but that the people were black, that they burnt their widow, and that, in order to get into Paradise, they had first to be mangled under the wheels of the car of Jagarnath. On my picture, however, they were represented looking tall, and as I thought, certainly not like niggers; and the mosques and temples visible on the shores of the river impressed me as even more beautiful and majestic than the churches and palaces at Dessau.”

Max Muller then goes on to talk about the spirituality of India, his foray into the translations of the Vedas, the stiff criticism and opposition he had to meet from the scholars from India and the gradual acceptance. He quotes few of the most famous poems from India, one of them being Vairagya-Sataka composed by Bhartrihari with prose translations from Sanskrit –

“Even if they have longer remained with us, the objects of sense are sure to vanish. What difference is there in separation, that man should not forsake them himself? If they pass away by themselves, they cause the greatest pain to the mind, but if we forsake them ourselves, they cause endless happiness and peace.”

 

The book keeps canoeing to speak about its first protagonist – Raja Rammohan Roy, the factors for his greatness, his activities in brief and his own personal philosophy. From Rammohan Roy, the boatman takes us to one of the luminaries of Tagore family – Sri Dwarkanath Tagore. Max Muller spent quite some time with Dwarkanath Tagore and explains in vivid details his strengths and his shortcomings. The discussion shifts to his son Maharshi Debendranath Tagore who the author had never met but had frequent letter exchanges. Reproducing his correspondences, the author goes on to make some definitive statements about Debendranath Tagore’s erudition and knowledge of the western thought and philosophy.

From the conservative Raja Radhakanta Deva who had published a large thesaurus of the Sanskrit language called the Sabda-kalpa druma to one of his dearest Keshab Chandra Sen who he understands to be more of a ‘true christian than many who call themselves Christians, and who are Christians in the ordinary sense of the word.’, he dissects through personality after personality. I am doubtful if a lot many of us know who Ramtanu Lahiri was. Max Muller talks about Ramtanu Lahiri, one of the leaders of the reformist movements in Bengal Renaissance. A student of David Hare and later a close friend of Keshab Chandra Sen, he was more progressive than most of us today can claim to be. Swami Dayanand Saraswati comes next and at this point the author also laments that we know so little about personal lives of our great reformers.

One particular aspect of the book that a serious reader would notice and love is the seamless transition through subjects. This is one great capability of the writer by which he develops a very fertile foundation to bring in the successive subjects. After discussing Dayanand Saraswati, Max Muller talks in some detail about Vidya, Avidya, Maya, Vedanta, Bhakti, Yoga, and the highest spiritual state of Samadhi. Naturally here, he moves on to Ramakrishna Paramhamsa. The ground that he prepares for the arrival of Sri Ramakrishna reads thus –

“That what is called a state of Samadhi, or a trance, can be produced by the very means which are employed by the Yogins in India, is, I believe, admitted by medical and psychiatric authorities; and though impostors certainly exist among the Indian Yogins, we should be careful not to treat all these Indian Saints as mere impostors. The temptation, no doubt, is great for people, who are believed to be, nay, in the end, not only to pretend, but  really to believe what others believe of them. And if they have been brought up in a philosophical atmosphere, or are filled by deep religious feelings, they would very naturally become what the Mahatmans are described to be – men who can pour out their souls of preferred eloquence and high-flown poetry, or who are able to enter even on subtle discussions of the great problems of philosophy and answer any questions addressed to them.

…. Such a man was Ramakrishna.”

 

Since he has reserved about twenty percent of the book for perhaps the greatest influence on him from the personalities he had set out to deal with – Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, he talks briefly about him here before moving on to Pawari Baba (Pavhari Baba) and Rai Shaligram Saheb Bahadur. He comes back to Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and speaks about his gospel and the dialogic vs dialectic in the study of great teachers and their teachings. His early life, a sharp response to Pratap Chandra Mazumdar’s late-found bitterness towards Sri Ramakrishna, a glimpse into the bond Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Keshab Chandra Sen shared with each other make the most delightful reading part of the book. If one has to begin to understand Vedanta, the last section of the book gives a lucid elaboration of some of the most critical concepts of Indian school of thought. The competition and conflict between Adi Shankara’s Advaita (Monism)  and Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita (Qualified Monism) have been treated brilliantly before concluding the book with one of the Mahavakyas (supreme statements) of Indian philosophy ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ (Chhandogya Upanishad) and selected sayings of Sri Ramakrishna.

I had to complete this book in one sitting. There was no other way in which I could have read such spellbinding accounts of the Indian vision, philosophy, and their contemporary ambassadors. However I would hold Max Muller guilty of two things in this book.

  1. At times the rationalism he tries turns into an attempt to sound unbiased just for the sake of sounding unbiased.  
  2. He never visited India. Hence, a lot many ideas that he has about India were directly or indirectly influenced by the first hand experience of other individuals. While this gives a sense of objectivity, I believe that to understand India in all her glory and pitfalls, a certain amount of subjectivity is needed as well. For this, I wish he had made an attempt to see India first hand by himself.

 
We as a nation at present are standing at a point where we believe a report coming from the agencies in USA more easily than coming from our own, we celebrate a one line praise of our culture from foreigners with great pride. At the same time, one who dares to look at us objectively with fair compliments and criticism is turned into a villain and crucified by us. Both these aspects are important for what I understand of this phenomena in societies. Many countries need somebody from their own land to tell them what lies in a foreign land and what is to be borrowed from the gifts that any foreign land has to offer. We owe a great deal to Sri F. Max Muller as we would call him in our country for the interest that India commands amongst the academicians of the west today. One of the foremost of the German scholars telling the west what India holds for the world does matter to the would be Indologists of those nations. And for some reason, it matters even more to us because we as a country can at times be accused for looking for validations from a foreign land. This was not always the case. When Swami Vivekananda came back from America, he wasn’t allowed to enter several temples of India because he had eaten with the Mlecchhas (term our learned Brahmins of the times had coined for foreigners). From one extreme of those days to today’s extreme of our ‘Look West’ disease, this work that talks of India without ever patronizing or appeasing Indians sits somewhere in the middle. There are books that you keep looking for and then there are books that find you. This book found me and I couldn’t be happier to be found. Such books are also reminders to our conscience of the vast wealth of knowledge we have inherited through centuries from our thinkers and how conveniently we have trashed them all in the modern times.

You may buy your copy on Amazon.