Philology vs Misology: How Indology promotes Speculation as Science
According to the ancient Greeks, philology is the study of ancient myths and tales to understand one’s immortal nature and relationship to the divine. Indologists claim that their study of ancient Indian texts is philology. In this article, I analyze the work of three pioneers of German Indology whose work continues to serve as a foundation for the field of Indology today. Based on my analyses, I evaluate whether the disparate and divergent outcome of applying the “text-historical” method would qualify as a product of a philological undertaking under the ancient Greek definition of the term. I also comment on the impact that the findings of Indology have had on how people of Indian origin view their ancient texts and associated traditions.
According to the ancient Greeks, philology is the study of ancient myths and tales to understand one’s true nature, specifically to understand whether one is mortal or immortal and his or her relationship to the divine (1). Under this definition of philology, Western scholars’ study of ancient Indian texts would not qualify as philology. To establish that Western scholars’ study is not consistent with this definition of philology, I analyze their framework for studying Indian texts, their underlying motivations, and the highly disparate conclusions that their framework and motivations generated. My analysis is based on the review of three pioneering German Indologists whose work heavily influenced and shaped the work of later Indologists both in Germany and around the world.
Adolf Holtzmann Jr. was the “first Indologist to make reconstruction of the original” (2) texts the primary goal of his study of the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavadgītā. His approach to studying Indian texts was highly influenced by his zeal to prove that the epic traditions of the Greeks, the Germans, and the Indians were branches of a common heritage (3). He saw the Kṣatriyas as members of a noble Indo-Germanic race and hypothesized that they were the subject of the original epic. He viewed Brahmins as contemptuous manipulators of texts who were responsible for ruining the original Indo-Germanic epic with their interpolations and redactions (4). Driven by his ideology, he engaged in extreme reconstructions of the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavadgītā.
Holtzmann posited a three-phase textual history of the Mahābhārata (5). The three phases, according to him, were: (1) Indo-Germanic oral tradition; (2) the Buddhist poetic composition; and (3) the Brahminic revision. Using this three-phase textual history hypothesis as a foundation, he fabricated a highly tendentious hypothesis of the Brahminic takeover of the epic poem. Holtzmann argued that in the third phase of the textual history of the Mahābhārata, the Brahmins took over the epic through a series of redactions and revisions. Specifically, he argued that the Brahmins used these redactions and revisions to introduce new characters, orchestrate the preferential treatment of the Pāṇḍavas, and establish the social order of Brahminism as a timeless and axiomatic truth.
Holtzmann, however, does not articulate exactly what the Brahmins would have revised and redacted. The target of the Brahminic revisions and redactions is not clear because Holtzmann has not given a consistent and clear description of the first phase. Not only does Holtzmann fail to clearly articulate the target (i.e., Buddhist poetic composition, Indo-Germanic epic tradition, or both) of the Brahminical takeover, but he also does not provide a rational account of it. Asking some basic questions that are unanswered by Holtzmann is sufficient for us to see the hollowness of Holtzmann’s hypothesis. For example, if Brahmins focused their redactions on the Buddhist composition, how did Brahmins replace all the versions produced by the oral tradition? Similarly, “How does Holtzmann explain that a Buddhist poet undertook to become the preserver and compiler of the Indo-Germanic tradition” (6)?
Similarly, Holtzmann hypothesized that the Bhagavadgītā was a pantheistic poem based on the beliefs about courage, the necessity of battle, and the absurdity of the fear of death that Indo-German warriors held (7). Based on this hypothesis, he concluded that the original Bhagavadgītā was a short work that ended with the second chapter of the Gītā. The first two chapters contained the main ideas of the original poem, and the subsequent chapters provided only an elaboration or addressed seeming contradictions. Holtzmann designated any elements of the Gītā that did not correspond to his hypothesis as revisions made by Brahmins to introduce theistic elements into the text. He specifically claimed that the identification of Kṛṣṇa with Brahman was a revision imposed upon the text by Brahmins (8).
By applying this historical-critical method to the Mahābhārata, Holtzmann also undertook a reconstruction of the epic in which he made the Pāṇḍavas the villains and the Kauravas the heroes (allegedly reverting the epic to its original state) (9). He had no interest in the epic as it existed, no appreciation for its philosophy, nor interest in its narrative. For him, the epic was simply an object that he could manipulate to corroborate his vision of German identity as secular, enlightened, and rational. To do this, Holtzmann identified “Buddhism with Protestantism and attributed it characteristics he associated with Enlightenment such as economic, social and scientific progress” (10). On the other hand, Holtzmann characterized Brahmins as a corrupt and manipulative priestly class similar to the Catholic priests in Europe. He argued that Brahmins persecuted the Buddhists and were responsible for their downfall. He was “obsessed with drawing a parallel between Brahmanism and Catholicism and with showing how, in the absence of a German critic, the counter-reformation has succeeded in India” (11). This shows that Holtzmann was essentially using the Mahābhārata as a foil for German history. Similarly, Holtzmann’s reconstruction of the Bhagavadgītā was not motivated by a genuine interest in the work but rather his zeal to corroborate his vision of the early Germans as freethinkers by arguing for an original pantheistic Bhagavadgītā.
von Garbe and Jacobi: Following Holtzmann’s Footsteps
Richard Karl von Garbe and Hermann Jacobi, two other pioneers of Indology, accepted Holtzmann’s thesis of an original Gītā and employed a similar historical-critical approach. However, they made superficial changes to arrive at more specific accounts of the original text and reached differing conclusions on whether the original was theistic, pantheistic, or both. Their efforts were motivated by their ideology and self-interest, namely, making a name for themselves within German academia. Garbe’s reconstructions of Indian texts helped him succeed Rudolf Von Roth as chair at Tubingen and become a highly respected scholar of the “history of religions in India” (12).
Garbe’s approach as well as that of Jacobi was heavily influenced by the pantheism debate that was raging in Europe during the nineteenth century. Protestants and Catholics alike viewed pantheism as irreligious and as affirming materialism and atheism. This gave rise to a huge divide between theism on one side and pantheism on the other. Many German philosophers and other scholars of the time including Kant, Hegel, and Schlegel were highly critical of pantheism. Schlegel, who had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism viewed pantheism with great disdain (13). He viewed pantheism as a philosophy that “flatters man’s conceit as much as his indolence” (14) and blamed it for promotion of “superstition and materialism” (15).
Given the great theism versus pantheism debate in European society, German Indologists took a view that the theistic and pantheistic portions of the Bhagavadgītā were contradictory, and that the contradiction can only be resolved by adopting a historical comparison to determine which of these two was older. The older portions of the text would be viewed as containing the original perspective of the Bhagavadgītā, and the latter portions of the text would be viewed as later interpolations (16).
Garbe, who preceded Jacobi, accepted Holtzmann’s thesis that the theistic and pantheistic elements of the Gītā were contradictory and that the resolution of the contradiction by identifying the older of the two would lead to the identification of the original Gītā (17). Although Garbe agreed with Holtzmann’s thesis of an original Gītā, he reached a different conclusion. Garbe argued that the Bhagavadgītā was originally a theistic text of the Bhāgavata religion, which was founded by Kṛṣṇa. According to him, the text propounded a rational monotheistic religion promoting the performance of good deeds and rituals. It was only later, after the rise of the priesthood (i.e., the Brahmins), that pantheistic elements were added to the text and salvation was redefined from eternal self-conscious existence of individual selves to a merger of the self into the pantheistic Brahman.
Jacobi, like Garbe, was influenced by Holtzmann’s thesis and believed in the concept of the original Bhagavadgītā and later interpolations. In his view, the original Bhagavadgītā consisted of Chapter 1 and 23 verses from the rest of the chapters that related to the war (18). The rest of the poem, which is didactic and philosophical, was a later addition. The original poem centered on the war was related to two divine beings, namely, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. The poem existed before the Mahābhārata and was incorporated into Mahābhārata. The pantheistic elements were later additions by redactors rather than the priesthood but there was no conflict between the theistic and pantheistic elements for Jacobi as pantheism was simply attributing the material causality of the world to God. For him, both the theistic and pantheistic interpretations of the Bhagavadgītā were reconcilable with monotheism and the incarnation of God in the world.
Not Philologists but Misologists
The approaches adopted by Holtzmann, Garbe, and Jacobi to the study of the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavadgītā clearly demonstrate that they were not philologists as they did not study the texts from a philosophical perspective to gain knowledge about their true nature in terms of mortality and relationship to the divine. Holtzmann’s objective was to use the Mahābhārata and the Gītā to connect German culture to the epic traditions of India and Greece and to establish German culture as freethinking. Garbe and Jacobi, on the other hand, were primarily interested in using the Bhagavadgītā to support their respective viewpoints concerning the pantheism debate that was ongoing in Europe at the time, to negate and discredit the traditional understanding of these texts that a continuous commentarial tradition had established over millennia. In this respect, these scholars were not engaged in philology but rather misology.
Many Western scholars of ancient Indian texts, particularly those who call themselves “Indologists,” approach these texts with a sense of skepticism and view them as objects to be exploited. They are unwilling to accept the validity and authenticity of the ancient Indian texts as they exist. Their skepticism manifests in the form of questions about the underlying motivation of the work or the authenticity of the extant versions as demonstrated through the analysis of the works of Holtzmann, Garbe, and Jacobi. Questions such as when was the text written? Is there a single author or multiple authors? Can the original text before redactions and interpolations be reconstituted? Can the stages of interpolation be identified along with their underlying motivations? As demonstrated in this paper, attempts to answer such questions through a historical study of these texts have resulted in iconoclastic reconstructions and created highly speculative historical narratives. Holtzmann’s attempt to equate Duryodhana to Ashoka based on the similarity in circumstances surrounding their birth to support his inversion hypothesis and “fuse Indo-Germanic and Buddhist culture” (19) serves as a prime example of a highly speculative historical narrative that neither coincides with “historical accuracy or narrative logic” (20).
Despite this, contemporary Indologists continue to study these texts with a skeptical lens adopting a historical approach that completely ignores the commentarial tradition which has studied the text from a philosophical perspective for more than a millennium and dismisses it as subjective and partial and a product of prejudice and superstition. This attitude has been exemplified by Heinrich Von Stietencron, a prominent twentieth century Indologist from the Tubingen school of Indology, which studied Indian texts from a religious-historical perspective (21). In writing an editor’s introduction to another Indologist’s work, Stietencron states that “the analytical thinking of Western scholars trained in historical and philological methodology stood in contrast to the traditional Indian commentators” (22). Through this statement he indicates that traditional commentators lacked the training and analytical ability of Western scholars. He then proceeds to comment on their motivation for studying these texts. They “not only generously harmonized all the disjunctions in the text but, above all, attempted to recognize in particular passages of their own philosophical and theological concepts. This was done to in order to secure for themselves the divine authority of Kṛṣṇa”.
The efforts of these scholars are primarily motivated by an attempt to support and further their religious or other ideologies or to enhance their self-interest (23). To illustrate this point, let us examine the case of Paul Hacker, who is accorded significant respect as a scholar by Indologists despite his meager contributions to philology and historical knowledge (24).
In describing the text-historical method, which is touted by Indologists as being scientific and analytical and producing unbiased knowledge, Hacker articulates that the method’s principal function is to lead “the kernel of truth in [heathen texts] into the freeing relationship [with Christianity], in which alone they can become fruitful” (25). However, his fervor for the application of the text-historical method is quite muted when it comes to applying it to the Christian canon. He states that “the interpretation of scripture always presupposes a hermeneutic canon. If one rejects the authentic canon of the Church, one inexorably falls under the influence of a modern, heretical principle of interpretation” (26). Further, while expounding on how the term critical should be understood in relation to the text-historical method, Hacker admits that the outcome produced by applying the method is a product of a creative imagination rather than a scientific explanation of the text. He states that “such theories are not really theology but intellectual-historical hypotheses” (27). He then clarifies what these hypotheses represent by noting that “with the self-certitude peculiar to scholars of their era, they presented the products of their ‘creative’ fantasy as facts” (28). These statements taken together clearly illustrate the role that ideology and self-interest played in Hacker’s scholarship and by implication on the scholarship of his collaborators as well as the scholarship of the predecessor Indologists referenced in Hacker’s statements.
The efforts of Indologists have not resulted in any knowledge or findings that have contributed to the improvement of society or helped individuals lead more productive and happier lives. That is why they are “reluctant to answer the question of what kind of knowledge they provide and for whom.”(29) Instead, they simply state that they provide knowledge.(30) In reality, however, through their rancorous debates they have “declared that”(31) the Indian “texts mean nothing at all.”(32) Consequently, by placing trust in their unsound and highly speculative arguments, many individuals have developed a strong dislike for humankind and society or have become misanthropes.
Losing Faith, Being Uprooted
Many Indians have placed their trust in Indologists because they were convinced by the Indologists’ argument that its method of studying ancient Indian texts is superior to the traditional method, being secular and based on reason. These Indians, who were not competent in crafting arguments, placed their trust in Indologists and Indology. They felt betrayed by the Indologists when they concluded that their ancient texts do not contain any meaningful or worthy insights about life and are simply filled with “a mass of incongruencies, absurdities, and contradictions” (33). As a result, these Indians lost faith in reason concerning Indian texts and began questioning the motivations of everyone, both the Indologists’ as well as those who have crafted effective and sound arguments against Indology. Indians also developed a dislike of Indian texts and culture due to the manipulations and distortions of them by Indologists. Given this, can one reasonably conclude that these scholars were/are engaging in philology?
A mature study of ancient texts and accounts does not engage in scientific demythologization. Such a study would respect the texts as meaningful and highlight or uncover profound philosophical concepts and principles contained within them. An immature study of ancient texts, such as that undertaken by these scholars is mere technique or method and produces little or nothing of value to society. Additionally, they degrade society by turning those who place trust in the unsound and highly speculative theories of scholars into misanthropes. Indians first lost faith in their texts and their traditions due to the repeated mockery by missionaries and Indologists. Now that they have become aware of the problems with Indology, they are no longer able to trust the tradition and so they have nowhere to turn to. They have thus become uprooted, turning to Western culture as the default either in the form of consumerism or Marxism (which is also a form of materialism) and are unable to pose questions of how to live, how to be ethical, the ultimate purpose of life, and how to gain salvation.
- Adluri and Bagchee, The Nay Science, xiii.
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 165.
- Ibid., 169.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 109.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid, 176.
- Ibid., 172–73.
- Ibid, 190.
- Ibid., 172.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid., 204.
- Ibid, 157.
- Ibid, 157.
- Ibid, 24.
- Ibid, 296.
- Adluri and Bagchee demonstrate this in great detail in their book The Nay Science. This is also discussed in Chapter 1 of Sukthankar’s book On the Meaning of the Mahābhārata.
- Adluri and Bagchee, “Methods and Contexts,” 19.
- Ibid, 13.
- Ibid, 14.
- Ibid, 13.
- Ibid, 13.
- Adluri and Bagchee, “Methods and Contexts,” 15.
- Ibid, 15.
- Ibid, 16.
- Ibid, 16.
- Sukthankar, On the Meaning of the Mahābhārata, 8.
Adluri, Vishwa, and Joydeep Bagchee. The Nay Science: A History of German Indology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Sukthankar, V.S. On the Meaning of the Mahābhārata. Bombay: Asiatic Society of Bombay, 1957.
Adluri, Vishwa, and Joydeep Bagchee. “Methods and Contexts: Rethinking Religion in South Asia.” Paper published on Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/43307584/. Accessed January 31, 2022.
Venkat Nagarajan is an economist with a deep interest in Indian philosophy and Hindu Studies. He is currently a student at the Hindu University of America.
First published on IndiaFacts