Book Review – Ancient India: Its Language and Religions by Hermann Oldenberg

Ancient India: Its Language and ReligionsAncient India: Its Language and Religionsby Hermann Oldenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good book to understand the history of Sanskrit studies in West. How it started and which personalities made clear inroads into that field is all detailed in the book. The books also provides a high level overview of the Vedic religion and Buddhism with a crudely done comparative study between Greek and Indian thought processes of the Vedic and Buddhist era. Well worth a read to understand how the interest in Sanskrit studies originated in the West and what impact the study had on the literary landscape of Europe of that time.

Some interesting information of the common philology of Sanskrit and Greek is covered. Like author proposes that western scholars should seek to establish between the divinities of the Veda and those of ancient Europe the same kinship, the same identity of origin, as exist between certain forms of Indian and Greek verbs, for example between the Indian daddmi and the Greek didomi, both of which mean “I give’’? Author at another place mentions that why the word daughter should be thygater in Greek and Tochter in German, neither the Greek nor the German language could explain. But the Sanskrit did seem able to explain it. The history of the Sanskrit word for daughter seemed written on its very front. Since this word fell under the root duk (to milk), it seemed obvious that the daughter was originally the milker—a domestic idyl from remotest antiquity.

Similarly Rig-Veda speaks of a goddess Sarama, a dog, who tracks the ruddy cows of the gods to their concealment when stolen ; her sons, who also have canine shapes and appear to play the part of genii of sleep and death, are named after their mother Saramejas. It was thought that the Greek Hermes and Hermeias had been discovered here, the guide of souls into the realm of death, the dream-sending god of sleep. Another gem is detailed in the Vedic title of the dawn, Ahana it was thought, lay the germ from which the Greek Athene had sprung, the daughter of Zeus, just as in the Veda the dawn was called the daughter of Djaus, or Heaven.

Author notes that a part of the ancient Indian fire-drill, namely, the stick which was kept turning to ignite the wood by its friction, was called pramantha. Here was revealed, so it was thought, the nature of the Titan form of Prometheus. The friend of mankind—who brought to them, despite of Zeus, fire, the fountain of all art—seemed here to be announced in his original character as a divine “rubber of fire,” who afterwards brings down the flame, which he has himself produced, to the earth.

Author also presented some commonalities between the ancient Greek orders of Orpheus and Pythagoras with the Buddhists. He mentions that the influence of the Orphean and Pythagorean ideas continues, clearly recognisable, up to the very acme of all Greek thought, up to Plato’s time. Plato’s conceptions as to the chief aims of human existence stand in closest contact with those of his mystic predecessors. According to the author both Greeks and Buddhists deliberated in the circles of closely confederated companions to liberate the soul of its imprisonment (for as such they looked upon corporeal existence), and from the bonds of the soul’s migration. Opposed to the realm of the migration of the soul with all its sufferings, there is, for Greek and Indian thinkers alike, a world of freedom, of the complete cessation of all suffering.

An interesting read if one is looking to find the roots of Sanskrit studies in the West.

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