Schmiedchen has authored several articles on Indian heritage and culture Image Credit: File

For many Indians in Germany who believe in reincarnation, she may have well been Indian in her previous birth — a typical expression of endearment for someone who has an overwhelming love for India and its culture. Meet Annette Schmiedchen, 49, the latest German to receive Padma Shri, India’s high civilian honour, for her remarkable contribution to the Sanskrit language and Indology.

For Schmiedchen, the seeds of love for Asia, particularly the multi-religious elements that make up India’s rich cultural and social mosaic, were planted in her mind early. This fascination would spur her initial interest in India later and lead her to become a scholar in the field of Indology.

Married to Rainer Schmiedchen, the German Consul General in Kolkata, she studied ancient Indian history, Indology and Sanskrit epigraphy at the Humboldt University in Berlin, bagging a doctorate from the same university in 1994 with a thesis titled “Grants of Villages, Land and Money in Favour of Buddhist Monasteries in Northern India from the 5th to the 8th centuries”.

In 2009, she obtained her Habilitation degree from Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg for her thesis on “Epigraphical Culture and Regional Tradition in Early Medieval Maharashtra: The Legitimisation of Political Power and Official Religious Patronage under the Royal Dynasties of the Rastrakutas, Silaharas, and Yadavas from the 8th to the 13th Centuries”.

Indeed, the accolades do not end there: Schmiedchen has also been appointed Research Fellow (honorary) of the International Association of Sanskrit Studies. She is affiliated to Martin Luther University as lecturer of Indology and to Humboldt University as researcher in an intercultural research project on medieval religious foundations and endowments, funded by the European Research Council.

Speaking to Weekend Review about her tryst with the India, Schmiedchen says, “I spent, for the first time, three months in India in 1994 under a joint scholarship programme of the German Academic Exchange Service and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. After that, I have been visiting India at least every two to three years for research and to attend conferences.”

Though the problems of pollution, overcrowding and poverty make India a difficult turf for many foreigners, many take it all in their stride. Schmiedchen may well fit into the second category.

Asked what she likes the most about India, pat comes the reply: “I like the multi-faceted culture and I am fascinated by its interesting history.”

So, when the Indian Government included her in the 66th Republic Day honours list this year, she was pleasantly surprised and “deeply honoured”.

“I received a mail from the Indian ambassador in Berlin asking me to call him. He conveyed this information to me. I also received calls from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Home Ministry,” she recalled. “I was, of course, very surprised and stunned, but was, naturally, also extremely happy about it.”

Before Schmiedchen, other German scholars to be honoured with the Padma Shri are Gisela Bonn (1990), Heinrich von Stietencron (2004), Lothar Lutze (2006) and Hermann Kulke (2010).

Schmiedchen looks at this award as “great encouragement to language cooperation and to pursue Sanskrit-based studies in India as well as outside India, and as a strong support for ‘nari shakti’ [women’s empowerment] in social sciences”.

Would the Padma Shri help her in her work? “So far, I do not see any change but I do hope that the award will help highlight the importance of Indology for the academic landscape and strengthen this discipline of study at the universities in Germany again. I wish, in particular, that both, the Humboldt University and the Martin Luther University, the universities to whom I feel deeply indebted, recognise the important contribution which Indology makes — and can make in future — in the research of history and culture of India,” she said.

Her comment also comes with a message for India as well as Germany. “For India, I would like to say that the learning of Sanskrit should be part of the curriculum of all those who study old Indian history and culture as a major subject. For Germany, the decision to do away with Indology as a subject of study at Humboldt University and the Free University should be immediately rescinded.”

In Berlin, five of the total of six professorships — Indology, old Indian history, Indian art history, modern Indian philology, ethnology of South Asia — have been eliminated. There is only one professorship for modern history of South Asia at the Humboldt University, she explains. “The Indology faculty at the Martin Luther University in Halle Wittenberg must be retained. The quality of teaching and research there is excellent, and the library stock is indeed unique.”

She voices, in effect, a concern that is also applicable to other academic institutions and universities where Indology is being taught. While German scholars and their institutions have done pioneering work in Indology studies in the past, the discipline is increasingly facing criticism from some quarters; some experts, who control the purse strings, see it as an inconsequential dissipation whose utility in terms of tangible returns is questionable.

Sanskrit, often described in subdued tones as a “dead tongue”, raises doubts about its practicality in modern usage. Consequently, many Indology-teaching institutions face the fiscal axe from their education-funding authorities.

The Narendra Modi government in India, which has been aggressively promoting Sanskrit, could also seek a quid pro quo from the German Government. It could ask for greater weighting to the language at educational institutions in Germany if the teaching of German in Indian schools, which had recently come in for criticism, was to be resumed.

Be that as it may, Schmiedchen’s award has been hailed by all and sundry. Her research is regarded as high scholarly standard and has been appreciated by many. She has authored several articles on Indian heritage and culture, and her book, “Herrschergenealogie und Religiöses Patronat: Die Inschriftenkultur der Rastrakutas, Silaharas und Yadavas”, depicting the inscription culture of the Rashtrakutas, the Silaharas and the Yadavas, was the 17th to be released under the series Gonda Indological Studies by Brill Publishers.

In 2009, she was conferred the title of “Research Fellow (honorary)” by the International Association of Sanskrit Studies. She has been jointly working at Humboldt University in the research project “FoundMed — Foundations in Medieval Societies: Intercultural Comparisons” funded by the European Research Council (ERC), and writes research papers and articles on India. The first of the three-volume encyclopaedia on foundations in the medieval millennium was released in 2014. 

A long association

Indology and Sanskrit have fascinated German scholars and researchers. The study of Sanskrit and Indian culture was initiated in various German universities at the beginning of the 19th century, first in Jena in 1817 and then in Bonn in 1818.

One academic generation later, some of those who studied in Bonn under August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) and Christian Lassen (1800–76) were to be appointed to the newly opened chairs where Indian studies began to be pursued. In Marburg, the first course in Sanskrit was offered by the philosopher Franz Vorlaender, who had studied in Bonn and Berlin, in the winter term of 1843-44.

Specifically, Indology includes the study of Sanskrit literature and Hinduism, along with other Indian religions, such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, and Pali literature. Dravidology is the separate branch dedicated to the Dravidian languages of South India.

Some scholars distinguish Classical Indology from Modern Indology — the former more focused on Sanskrit and other ancient language sources, the latter on contemporary India, its politics and sociology.

The Schlegel brothers played a pioneering role in pushing Indology in Germany. They were followed by scholars who promoted the scientific study of Indology. Another important figure is Franz Bopp (1791-1867), who was the first Indologist at Berlin University, and the teacher of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

The list of German scholars is long but the name of Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), a German Indologist, deserves special mention. The Goethe Institute, which promotes German language abroad, calls its branches in India as Max Müller Bhavans.

Born in Dessau in Central Germany, Max Müller shifted to Oxford where he intensified his study of the Vedas. He came to be known throughout the world also by his “Sacred Books of the East”, 49 volumes of which appeared during 1874-84, 31 containing translations of Indian texts. He edited the “Rig Veda” with the commentary of Sayana. The six volumes of this edition came out between 1849 and 1874. Müller translated the “Dhammapada”, the “Sukhavati Vyuha” and the “Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita”.

Another Indologist, Otto von Boethling (1815-1904) edited and translated Panini’s grammar and Kalidasa’s “Shakuntalam”, including the enormous Sanskrit-German dictionary generally known as the St Petersburg Lexicon, which he published in collaboration with the Tuebingen Professor of Sanskrit, Rudolph Roth (1821-95), in seven parts between 1852 and 1875.

Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.