The election in 1860 for the position of Boden Professor of Sanskrit
at the University of Oxford
was a hotly contested affair between two rival candidates offering different approaches to Sanskrit
scholarship. One was Monier Williams
, an Oxford-educated Englishman who had spent 14 years teaching Sanskrit to those preparing to work in British India
for the East India Company
. The other, Max Müller
, was a German-born lecturer at Oxford specialising in comparative philology
, the science of language. He had spent many years working on an edition of the Rig Veda
(an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit
hymns), and had gained an international reputation for his scholarship. Williams, in contrast, worked on later material and had little time for the "continental" school of Sanskrit scholarship that Müller exemplified. Williams regarded the study of Sanskrit as a means to an end, namely the conversion of India to Christianity. For Müller, his work, while it would assist missionaries, was also valuable as an end in itself.
The election came at a time of public debate about Britain's role in India in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857
. Opinions were divided on whether greater efforts should be made to convert India or whether to remain sensitive to local culture and traditions. Both men battled for the votes of the electorate (the Convocation
of the university, consisting of over 3,700 graduates) through manifestos and newspaper correspondence. Williams laid great stress in his campaign on the intention of the original founder of the chair, that the holder should assist in converting India through dissemination of the Christian scriptures. Müller's view was that his work on the Rig Veda
was of great value for missionary work, and published testimonials accordingly. He also wanted to teach wider subjects such as Indian history and literature to assist missionaries, scholars, and civil servants – a proposal that Williams criticised as not in accordance with the original benefactor's wishes. The rival campaigns took out newspaper advertisements and circulated manifestos, and different newspapers backed each man. Although generally regarded as the superior to Williams in scholarship, Müller had the double disadvantage (in the eyes of some) of being German and having liberal Christian views. Some of the newspaper pronouncements in favour of Williams were based on a claimed national interest of having an Englishman as Boden professor to assist with the work of governing and converting India. Read more...