Frankly, the only time I'd heard of Max Müller before I bought this book was with reference to one Max Müller Bhavan in Pune where German is supposedly taught. All I knew was that he was some hotshot Western thinker and that I ought to read him sometime. (Yes, scoff all you want. So what if I am learning about Müller after my hair has started greying?)
So while waiting for my bus one day, my eager eyes scanning the pile of old books at the raddiwala, I spotted a badly mildewed cover, peering out of which were the words 'India' and 'Müller'. I looked at its contents and spotted words like 'Vedas' and 'Hindus', and didn't have to think twice. I brought home this gem for 20 humble rupees, and unearthed the treasures within its pages in the next few days.
As Wikipedia told me later, Müller was one of the first and the best Orientologists in the last century, and has perhaps not had a rival yet. He is the editor of the stupendous 50-volume set of 'The Sacred Books of the East' (Yes, the set costs Rs 7600 on Flipkart. Sigh!), and only the tiniest glimpse of the ginormous extent of his learning can be seen in the book India: What can it teach us? The book is, in fact, a compilation of lectures the author had delivered to British students of the Indian Administrative Service when India was still under the colonial rule. What is entirely fascinating about this book for an Indian reader is the conviction with which Müller explains India to non-Indians. I don't think any of us could fight the case of our nation as well as this outsider.
But that's precisely why this book, like so many books on India by foreign authors, appeals to us. The foreign writer has the advantage of objectivity, and can sift facts from fiction. We are bred to revere our culture, and dare not question even the most absurd. In fact, we may not even notice the absurd, since they are so much a part of our consciousness. Through Müller's eyes, we see clearly the human angles of all that is sacred to us.
India: What can it teach us? is divided into seven lectures with Müller gradually leading his skeptical students from mistrust to the beginnings of faith. Gently, yet with conviction, the author first dispels the myths associated with India in the minds of Englishmen, and slowly offers bauble after bauble of ancient Indian wisdom, infusing new perspectives. Citing one historical account after another, he refutes the common perception of Indians as a race of liars, among other things. He goes on to prove the worth of studying Sanskrit. As the mother of all Indo-European languages, knowing Sanskrit is the mandatory first step for any student of the history of language. Further, he points out that one understands not just the history of language through ancient Sanskrit literature, but the entire evolution of human thought. He helps establish the antiquity of the Vedas, by explaining the oral tradition. He speaks for the originality of the Vedic ideas as a natural progression of human thought, similar to all cultures of the world. He propounds some very rational theories about how our henotheistic system, our rituals, and our entire religion came about. He illustrates each of his points beautifully with Vedic verses or quotations from Western scholars, where the need arises. He presents in the most rational light, the mystique that India is to the Western eye.
And there is so much more for the Eastern eye. You'd be surprised at how much you don't know.