In 1862, Bombay’s Elphinstone College received a special recommendation from none other than the Orientalist Max Müller. A vacancy had opened up in the college and the German-born philologist felt it would be well served to hire Georg Bühler. A 26-year-old linguist, Bühler was proficient in academic Sanskrit, Persian as well as Armenian but was working at the time as an assistant in the university library in the German city of Göttingen. A stint at Elphinstone College is the break he needed in academia to go on to become one of 19th-century Europe’s finest Indologists.

Born in 1837 to a Lutheran reverend in the German village of Borstel, Johann Georg Bühler developed a deep interest in languages from a young age. In school, he studied Latin and Old Greek. And in university in Göttingen, he encountered Sanskrit, which he would work tirelessly for the rest of his life to master.

He arrived in Bombay in February 1863 and immediately assumed his responsibilities as professor of Oriental Languages at Elphinstone College. “He learned quickly Marathi and studied practical Sanskrit under pandits,” Finnish scholar Klaus Karttunen says on his well-curated website Persons of India Studies. “He successfully taught his Indian students modern philological methods.”

Within a few months of his arrival, Bühler was nominated for membership of the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. “In the university, he had to work as examiner in Sanskrit, Latin and Greek; and before the Asiatic Society, he delivered many more lectures,” J Jolly and GU Thite write in a paper titled Georg Bühler (1837-1898). An uneven English translation of this paper was published in the Annals of the Bhandarkar Institute in 2010.

Jolly and Thite add, “In the beginning of 1864, he, along with the then-Registrar of the Bombay High Court, R. West, through the-then Governor Sir Bartle Frete was selected to compose a digest of Hindu Law cases, along with a representation of the Indian Law valid in the Bombay Presidency…” Until this digest was made, the high court depended on pandits when it came to matters of Hindu law.

Over the next few years, Bühler would continue to teach at the college, while simultaneously researching Sanskrit manuscripts.

“In 1868, Bühler left Elphinstone College and became acting Educational Inspector, from 1870 on a permanent basis, used his inspection tours also for scholarly exploration, especially in the search for the Sanskrit manuscripts, together with (Sanskrit scholar Franz) Kielhorn,” Karttunen writes. His health fluctuated over the next decade, forcing him to travel back and forth between India and Europe. While in India, he developed an interest in Gujarati and periodically visited Gujarat to collect manuscripts.

Indology in Austria

Largely inspired by Max Müller, the intelligentsia in the German-speaking world started taking great interest in Sanskrit. Göttingen, where Bühler studied, was a major learning centre for German speakers interested in Sanskrit, but there were other universities around the time that were looking to explore Indology and Indian classical languages. One of these was the University of Vienna.

In 1845, the University of Vienna hired Austrian scholar Anton Boller to teach Sanskrit. Boller was an autodidact. He had abandoned medical studies to teach himself Sanskrit. “His Sanskrit grammar was based on independent work with Indian grammarians, Pāṇini and Vopadeva, and on Böhtlingk’s articles, but was reviewed unfavourably by his contemporaries (e.g. Albrecht Weber),” writes Karttunen.

Max Müller. Credit: London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Two years after he started teaching in Vienna, Boller published Ausführliche Sanskrit-Grammatik für den öffentlichen und Selbstunterricht (Detailed Sanskrit grammar for public and self-instruction). Both the book and its author had a fair share of critics. But for the University of Vienna, hiring him proved astute. With the establishment of a Sanskrit chair, the university became a draw for interested students and it slowly expanded its Indian offerings.

In October 1880, the university appointed Bühler the Chair for Philology and Antiquities of Ancient India. This was another astute decision. Bühler had left India for good a few months earlier on account of worsening health, and by this time he had built a reputation as a towering figure of Indology in the Germanic world.

“With Bühler’s appointment, Viennese Indology began to flourish,” says the website of the University of Vienna. “His ability to attract young students and other scholars is documented by a colleague who reports that when he visited Bühler’s Sanskrit course at the University he counted some fifty persons in the room.”

At the University of Vienna, Bühler dedicated his mornings to research, while taking lectures in the afternoon. One of the assignments he gave his students was to translate Aesop’s fables into Sanskrit. To his advanced students, he would read the Panchatantra.

“For his special students, no labour was too much, and he himself used to offer his vacation time to them,” Jolly and Thite write. “He once dedicated two full days of his Easter vacation to a student with whom he sat from morning to evening, going over Ashokan inscriptions in the Kharosthi Script, which adorned the walls of the institute.”

Bühler also played an important role in founding the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna, and the Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes (Vienna Journal of Oriental Studies). “In addition to his numerous research projects, Bühler also took on the editorship of the monumental and in many respects still valuable Grundriß der indoarischen Philologie und Altertumskunde (Outline of Indo-Aryan philology and archaeology),” the university website says. “Throughout his life, he endeavoured to maintain a personal connection with India.”

In Austria, Bühler’s health recovered and he started attending Indology conferences across Europe. As a member of the German Oriental Society, he participated in conferences where he spoke of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist manuscripts. At the International Congress of Orientalists in London in 1892, he was elected the vice-president of the Indian section.

Throughout this time, Bühler was in close touch with his mentor. He helped Müller edit Sacred Books of the East, the 50-volume set of English translations of ancient Indian and Asian texts. Among his most important contributions to it was a translation of Apastamba Dharmasutra, a Sanskrit text that dates back to at least the first millennium CE.

Such was his prowess in ancient languages that his translations ranged from Greco-Buddhist inscriptions in modern-day Afghanistan to those of the Pallavas (in Prakrit), according to Jolly and Thite.

Untimely death

Bühler died suddenly on April 8, 1898, in a boat tragedy. On the evening of Good Friday, he went out in a boat on Lake Constance in the Bavarian town of Lindau and drowned under mysterious circumstances. There were rumours at the time that Bühler took his life because of a scandal with a student, but this was never proved. Contemporary reports suggested he was travelling with an experienced boatman. His body was never recovered.

A few weeks earlier, Bühler had announced his intention to travel to India and conduct further research and get access to more ancient texts. But it was not to be. He died three months short of his 61st birthday.

The department he helped build in Vienna has since expanded and is now called the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. Even today, his and Max Müller’s works are some of the strongest cultural and historical links between India and the German-speaking world.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.