Program of a Translation of the Sacred Books of the East

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Program of a Translation of the Sacred Books of the East

I here subjoin the program in which I first put forward the idea of a translation of the Sacred Books of the East, and through which I invited the co-operation of Oriental scholars in this undertaking. The difficulty of finding translators, both willing and competent to take a part in it, proved far greater than I had anticipated. Even when I had secured the assistance of a number of excellent scholars, and had received their promises of prompt co-operation, illness, domestic affliction, and even death asserted their control over all human affairs. Professor Childers, who had shown the warmest interest in our work, and on whom I chiefly depended for the Pali literature of the Buddhists, was taken from us, an irreparable loss to Oriental scholarship in general, and to our undertaking in particular. Among native scholars, whose co-operation I had been particularly desired to secure, Rajendralal Mitra, who had promised a translation of the Vâyu-purâna, was prevented by serious illness from fulfilling his engagement. In other cases sorrow and sickness have caused, at all events, serious delay in the translation of the very books which were to have inaugurated this Series. However, new offers of assistance have come, and I hope that more may still come from Oriental scholars both in India and England, so that the limit of time which had been originally assigned to the publication of twenty-four volumes may not, I hope, be much exceeded.

Apart from the interest which the Sacred Books of all religions possess in the eyes of the theologian, and, more particularly, of the missionary, to whom an accurate knowledge of them is as indispensable as a knowledge of the enemy's country is to a general, these works have of late assumed a new importance, as viewed in the character of ancient historical documents. In every country where Sacred Books have been preserved, whether by oral tradition or by writing, they are the oldest records, and mark the beginning of what may be called documentary, in opposition to purely traditional, history.

There is nothing more ancient in India than the Vedas; and, if we except the Vedas and the literature connected with them, there is again no literary work in India which, so far as we know at present, can with certainty be referred to an earlier date than that of the Sacred Canon of the Buddhists. Whatever age we may assign to the various portions of the Avesta and to their final arrangement, there is no book in the Persian language of greater antiquity than the Sacred Books of the followers of Zarathustra, nay, even than their translation in Pehlevi. There may have been an extensive ancient literature in China long before Khung-fû-tze and Lâo-tze, but among all that was rescued and preserved of it, the five King and the four Shû claim again the highest antiquity. As to the Koran, it is known to be the fountain-head both of the religion and of the literature of the Arabs.

This being the case, it was but natural that the attention of the historian should of late have been more strongly attracted by these Sacred Books, as likely to afford most valuable information, not only on the religion, but also on the moral sentiments, the social institutions, the legal maxims of some of the most important nations of antiquity. There are not many nations that have preserved sacred writings, and many of those that have been preserved have but lately become accessible to us in their original form, through the rapid advance of Oriental scholarship in Europe. Neither Greeks, nor Romans, nor Germans, nor Celts, nor Slaves have left us anything that deserves the name of Sacred Books. The Homeric Poems are national Epics, like the Râmâyana, and the Nibelunge, and the Homeric Hymns have never received that general recognition or sanction which alone can impart to the poetical effusions of personal piety the sacred or canonical character which is the distingishing feature of the Vedic Hymns. The sacred literature of the early inhabitants of Italy seems to have been of a liturgical rather than of a purely religious kind, and whatever the Celts, the Germans, the Slaves may have possessed of sacred traditions about their gods and heroes, having been handed down by oral tradition chiefly, has perished beyond all hope of recovery. Some portions of the Eddas alone give us an idea of what the religious and heroic poetry of the Scandinavians may have been. The Egyptians possessed Sacred Books, and some of them, such as the Book of the Dead, have come down to us in various forms. There is a translation of the Book of the Dead by Dr. Birch, published in the fifth volume of Bunsen's Egypt, and a new edition and translation of this important work may be expected from the combined labours of Birch, Chabas, Lepsius, and Naville, In Babylon and Assyria, too, important fragments of what may be called a Sacred Literature have lately come to light. The interpretation, however, of these Hieroglyphic and Cuneiform texts is as yet so difficult that, for the present, they are of interest to the scholar only, and hardly available for historical purposes.

Leaving out of consideration the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, it appears that the only great and original religions which profess to be founded on Sacred Books[13], and have preserved them in manuscript, are:—

  1. The religion of the Brahmans.
  2. The religion of the followers of Buddha.
  3. The religion of the followers of Zarathustra.
  4. The religion of the followers of Khung-fû-tze.
  5. The religion of the followers of Lâo-tze.
  6. The religion of the followers of Mohammed.

A desire for a trustworthy translation of the Sacred Books of these six Eastern religions has often been expressed. Several have been translated into English, French, German, or Latin, but in some cases these translations are difficult to procure, in others they are loaded with notes and commentaries, which are intended for students by profession only. Oriental scholars have been blamed for not having as yet supplied a want so generally felt, and so frequently expressed, as a complete, trustworthy, and readable translation of the principal Sacred Books of the Eastern Religions. The reasons, however, why hitherto they have shrunk from such an undertaking are clear enough. The difficulties in many cases of giving complete translations, and not selections only, are very great. There is still much work to be done in a critical restoration of the original texts, in an examination of their grammar and metres, and in determining the exact meaning of many words and passages. That kind of work is naturally far more attractive to scholars than a mere translation, particularly when they cannot but feel that, with the progress of our knowledge, many a passage which now seems clear and easy, may, on being re-examined, assume a new import. Thus while scholars who are most competent to undertake a translation, prefer to devote their time to more special researches, the work of a complete translation is deferred to the future, and historians are left under the impression that Oriental scholarship is still in so unsatisfactory a state as to make any reliance on translations of the Veda, the Avesta, or the Tâo-te King extremely hazardous.

It is clear, therefore, that a translation of the principal Sacred Books of the East can be carried out only at a certain sacrifice. Scholars must leave for a time their own special researches in order to render the general results already obtained accessible to the public at large. And even then, really useful results can be achieved viribus unitis only. If four of the best Egyptologists have to combine in order to produce a satisfactory edition and translation of one of the Sacred Books of ancient Egypt, a much larger number of Oriental scholars will be required for translating the Sacred Books of the Brahmans, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, the followers of Khung-fû-tze, Lâo-tze, and Mohammed.

Lastly, there was the most serious difficulty of all, a difficulty which no scholar could remove, viz. the difficulty of finding the funds necessary for carrying out so large an undertaking. No doubt there exists at present a very keen interest in questions connected with the origin, the growth, and decay of religion. But much of that interest is theoretic rather than historical. How people might or could or should have elaborated religious ideas, is a topic most warmly discussed among psychologists and theologians, but a study of the documents, in which alone the actual growth of religious thought can be traced, is much neglected. A faithful, unvarnished prose translation of the Sacred Books of India, Persia, China, and Arabia, though it may interest careful students, will never, I fear, excite a widespread interest, or command a circulation large enough to make it a matter of private enterprise and commercial speculation.

No doubt there is much in these old books that is startling by its very simplicity and truth, much that is elevated and elevating, much that is beautiful and sublime; but people who have vague ideas of primeval wisdom and the splendour of Eastern poetry will soon find themselves grievously disappointed. It cannot be too strongly stated, that the chief, and, in many cases, the only interest of the Sacred Books of the East is historical; that much in them is extremely childish, tedious, if not repulsive; and that no one but the historian will be able to understand the important lessons which they teach. It would have been impossible to undertake a translation even of the most important only of the Sacred Books of the East, without the support of an Academy or a University which recognises the necessity of rendering these works more generally accessible, on the same grounds on which it recognises the duty of collecting and exhibiting in Museums the petrifactions of bygone ages, little concerned whether the public admires the beauty of fossilised plants and broken skeletons, as long as hard-working students find there some light for reading once more the darker pages in the history of the earth.

Having been so fortunate as to secure that support, having also received promises of assistance from some of the best Oriental scholars in England and India, I hope I shall be able, after the necessary preparations are completed, to publish about three volumes of translations every year, selecting from the stores of the six so-called “Book-religions” those works which at present can be translated, and which are most likely to prove useful. All translations will be made from the original texts, and where good translations exist already, they will be carefully revised by competent scholars. Such is the bulk of the religious literature of the Brahmans and the Buddhists, that to attempt a complete translation would be far beyond the powers of one generation of scholars. Still, if the interest in the work itself should continue, there is no reason why this series of translations should not be carried on, even after those who commenced it shall have ceased from their labours.

What I contemplate at present and I am afraid at my time of life even this may seem too sanguine, is no more than a Series of twenty-four volumes, the publication of which will probably extend over eight years. In this Series I hope to comprehend the following books, though I do not pledge myself to adhere strictly to this outline:—

1. From among the Sacred Books of the Brahmans I hope to give a translation of the Hymns of the Rig-veda. While I shall continue my translation of selected hymns of that Veda, a traduction raisonnée which is intended for Sanskrit scholars only, on the same principles which I have followed in the first volume[14], explaining every word and sentence that seems to require elucidation, and carefully examining the opinions of previous commentators, both native and European, I intend to contribute a freer translation of the hymns to this Series, with a few explanatory notes only, such as are absolutely necessary to enable readers who are unacquainted with Sanskrit to understand the thoughts of the Vedic poets. The translation of perhaps another Samhitâ, one or two of the Brâhmanas, or portions of them, will have to be included in our Series, as well as the principal Upanishads, theosophic treatises of great interest and beauty. There is every prospect of an early appearance of a translation of the Bhagavad-gîtâ, of the most important among the sacred Law-books, and of one at least of the Purânas. I should have wished to include a translation of some of the Gain books, of the Granth of the Sikhs, and of similar works illustrative of the later developments of religion in India, but there is hardly room for them at present.

2. The Sacred Books of the Buddhists will be translated chiefly from the two original collections, the Southern in Pali, the Northern in Sanskrit. Here the selection will, no doubt, be most difficult. Among the first books to be published will be, I hope, Sûtras from the Dîgha Nikâya, a part of the Vinaya-pilaka, the Dhammapada, the Divyâvadâna, the Lalita-vistara, or legendary life of Buddha.

3. The Sacred Books of the Zoroastrians lie within a smaller compass, but they will require fuller notes and commentaries in order to make a translation intelligible and useful.

4. The books which enjoy the highest authority with the followers of Khung-fû-tze are the King and the Shû. Of the former the Shû King or Book of History; the Odes of the Temple and the Altar, and other pieces illustrating the ancient religious views and practices of the Chinese, in the Shih King or Book of Poetry; the Yî King; the Lî K'î; and the Hsiâo King or Classic of Filial Piety, will all be given, it is hoped, entire. Of the latter, the Series will contain the Kung Yung or Doctrine of the Mean; the Tâ Hsio or Great Learning; all Confucius' utterances in the Lun Yü or Confucian Analects, which are of a religious nature, and refer to the principles of his moral system; and Mang-tze's Doctrine of the Goodness of Human Nature.

5. For the system of Lâo-tze we require only a translation of the Tâo-teh King with some of its commentaries, and, it may be, an authoritative work to illustrate the actual operation of its principles.

6. For Islam, all that is essential is a trustworthy translation of the Koran.

It will be my endeavour to divide the twenty-four volumes which are contemplated in this Series as equally as possible among the six religions. But much must depend on the assistance which I receive from Oriental scholars, and also on the interest and the wishes of the public.

F. Max Müller.

Oxford, October, 1876.

The following distinguished scholars, all of them occupying the foremost rank in their own special departments of Oriental literature, are at present engaged in preparing translations of some of the Sacred Books of the East: S. Beal, R. G. Bhandarkar, G. Bühler, A. Burnell, E. B. Cowell, J. Darmesteter, T. W. Rhys Davids, J. Eggeling, V. Fausböll, H. Jacobi, J. Jolly, H. Kern, F. Kielhorn, J. Legge, H. Oldenberg, E. H. Palmer, R. Pischel, K. T. Telang, E. W. West.

The works which for the present have been selected for translation are the following:


Hymns of the Rig-veda.
The Satapatha-brâhmana.
The Upanishads.
The Grihya-sûtras of Hiranyakesin and others.


The Sûtras of Âpastamba, Gautama, Baudhâyana, Vasishtha, Vishnu, &c.


The Laws of Manu,Yâgñavalkya, &c.


The Bhagavad-gîtâ.
The Vâyu-purâna.


1. Pali Documents.

The Mahâparinibbâna Sutta, the Tevigga Sutta, the Mahasudassana Sutta, the Dhammakakkappavattana Sutta; the Suttanipâta; the Mahâvagga, the Kullavagga, and the Pâtimokkha.

2. Sanskrit Documents.

The Divyâvadâna and Saddharmapundarîka.

3. Chinese Documents.

The Phû-yâo King, or life of Buddha.

4. Prakrit Gaina Documents.

The Âkârânga Sûtra, Dasavaikâlika Sûtra, Sûtrakritânga, and Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra.


1. Zend Documents.

The Vendidâd.

2. Pehlevi and Parsi Documents.

The Bundahis, Bahman Yasht, Shâyast-lâ-shâyast, Dâdistâni Dînî, Mainyôi Khard.


The Koran.


1. Confucianism.

The Shû King, Shih King, Hsiâo King, Yî King, Lî Kî, Lun Yu, and Mang-tze.

2. Tâoism.

The Tâo-teh King, Kwang-tze, and Kan Ying Phien.

[13] Introduction to the Science of Religion, by F. Max Müller (Longmans, 1873), p.104

[14] Rig-veda-sanhitâ, The Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans, translated and explained by F. Max Müller. Vol. i. Hymns to the Maruts or the Storm-Gods. London, 1869.

Sources +