Max Müller’s Beginning of Modern Religious Study and the Silent Formulation of Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT)

  • Subrata Chattopadhyay Banerjee


‘It is language and religion that make a people, but religion is even a more powerful agent than language’, wrote Friedrich Max Müller, the pioneer of comparative philology and scientific study of religion. Nineteenth-century Europe underwent major turmoil by the rise of critical thinking from scientific luminaries like Charles Lyell and Darwin, growth of the romantic and nationalistic movement and the reigning crisis of faith. The supremacy of religious scholars as the guardians of knowledge was repeatedly questioned. Consequently, there was an increased need of a more scientific approach looking at ancient religious texts. In 1845, after following the lecture of Burnouf on Rig Veda, Müller got attracted towards the study of Sanskrit. However, Müller’s research was not free from the contemporary sociopolitical influences. One of his mentors, Baron von Bunsen, toiled to develop a philosophy of religion by linking comparative philology and theology. Müller’s magnum opus—The Sacred Books of The East project, was an effort, partly directed to this cause. It received generous support from the British Empire due to colonial interests it served and due to the intellectual curiosity, it raised about the origin of civilization. During this work, Müller established the word Aryan to refer to people speaking old Indo-European branch of languages. Thereafter, Müller started to reconstruct the intellectual history of mankind by first, considering language as the basis for intellect and second, by applying the theory of evolution to religion. Thus, language, race and religion were merged in the same pot paving the way for Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). In this part of my study, I take a critical look into the scholarly pursuit of Müller and argue that his scientific methods were not necessarily sound. To fit a set of preconceived notions in scientific wrapper, he helped formulate the questionable notion of AIT. Thus, my analyses not only throws light into the formulation of AIT but also shows that scientific studies of nineteenth century were not free from individual ideologies and sociopolitical interests (Notably, this is aligned with the argument in the ‘strong program’ of culture. See for example, [The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology by Jeffrey C. Alexander and Philip Smith. This essay has appeared in The Handbook of Sociological Theory, edited by Jonathan Turner (New York: Kluwer, 2001), and in Alexander’s The Meanings of Social Life (New York: Oxford, 2004)]).


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Subrata Chattopadhyay Banerjee
    • 1
  1. 1.SingaporeSingapore

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