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South Asia at the Library of Congress: The Albrecht Weber Collection (1904)

(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, Reference Librarian for South Asian collection, Asian Division.)

Figure 1: German Indologist Albrecht Weber (1825-1901). Image source: Studi italiani di philologia indo-iranica 2, 1898.

Figure 1: German Indologist Albrecht Weber (1825-1901). “Studi italiani di philologia indo-iranica 2,” 1898.

Between the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th century, India was becoming a major academic subject throughout Europe. The discovery that many words in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit (e.g., dasha – ten, akshi – eye, matr – mother, pitr – father) had cognates in classical Greek (deca, ophthalmos, métér, patér) and Latin (decem, oculus, mater, pater) captured the imaginations of philologists, such as Sir William Jones, H.T. Colebrooke, Charles Wilkins, and August and Friedrich Schlegel. Their translations of Sanskrit literature into English, French, and German introduced new Western audiences to the study of world philosophies and religions. (For example, Henry David Thoreau’s writings referenced and quoted from the 1785 Wilkins translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an important Hindu sacred text). Ultimately, what emerged from the work of the early philologists was Indology – the scholarly discipline predicated on understanding India chiefly through its ancient texts and languages.

Figure 2: Title page of Weber’s 1845 dissertation on the Yajur Veda. Asian Division.

Figure 2: Title page of Weber’s 1845 dissertation on the Yajur Veda. Asian Division.

One German Indologist is particularly important for the Library of Congress because his personal library was the foundation of our South Asian collection. For nearly six decades, Albrecht Weber (1825-1901) researched, wrote, and taught about ancient India in general and subjects such as religion, grammar, and astronomy in particular. Under the guidance of the German scholar A.F. Stenzler, Weber earned his doctorate at the University of Breslau in 1845 and served as professor of Sanskrit at the University of Berlin from 1856 until his death. Between earning his degree and starting his professorship, Weber started the journal “Indische Studien” in 1849, and published numerous works, including a critical edition of the “White Yajur Veda” (3 vols.), a catalog of manuscripts in Berlin’s Royal Library, a translation of the classical Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa’s “Malavikagnimitram,” and a treatise on the Prakrit-language Jain text “Shatrunjaya Mahatmyam.” And he did all of this by the age of 35.

In 1904, the Library of Congress purchased the late Dr. Weber’s collection of more than 4,000 books, manuscripts, and pamphlets. This acquisition provided the Library with its first holdings of many sacred Hindu works in Sanskrit – the Vedas, various Upaniṣads, the Rāmāyaṇa, and many Purāṇas. Weber’s library also reflected his wide-ranging interests: it came with a number of books on music, grammar, geography, and other subjects. The Library’s Annual Report of 1904 included an assessment of the Weber Library by G.M. Bolling, Professor of Greek and Sanskrit at Catholic University:

For the student of history and institutions of ancient people the first and indispensable requirement is access to the texts themselves… Now there is hardly a published work of Vedic or Sanskrit literature of which this library does not contain at least one text, and this I would designate as the first merit of the collection and one the importance of which it is difficult to overestimate.

Weber’s impressive collection certainly had value for Indologists, but it also factored into the Library of Congress’s overall acquisition strategy. At the end of its entry on Weber, the 1904 Annual Report noted that its purchase was part of the vision of the Library’s future as “the one national library, the only one in the country destined to be encyclopedic and universal in its comprehensiveness.” Today, the collection is a valuable resource for scholars specializing in the methods of Western Indology, both its contributions and limitations.

Figure 3 – Beginning of the Agnistomaprayoga, one of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Weber collection. This manuscript from 1879 is a manual on the proper usage (prayoga) of the agnistoma, an ancient religious ritual centered on praising and pouring libations into the sacred fire, or agni. Asian Division.

Figure 3 – Beginning of the Agnistomaprayoga, one of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Weber collection. This manuscript from 1879 is a manual on the proper usage (prayoga) of the agnistoma, an ancient religious ritual centered on praising and pouring libations into the sacred fire, or agni. Asian Division.

Although Weber, like many of his European contemporaries, never visited India, his work has proved instrumental for Western Indologists. He was among the first to show that one could approach Sanskrit literature not only from the perspective of grammar and etymology but also as a means to study the history of Indian religion, philosophy, and culture. And some of his ideas — for instance, his belief in Greek influences on Indian epic poetry — became the subject of vigorous academic debate in his day.

Weber’s work also evidenced the importance of using the Devanagari script in the translation process. In the early 19th century, printing texts in Devanagari could be very costly because of the hundreds of possible combinations of vowels and consonants. Many Indologists simply opted for the easiest solution, which was to render the original Devanagari into Romanized script with the necessary diacritical marks. In contrast, Weber’s doctoral thesis evidences four layers of translation in his study of the Yajur Veda, one of Hinduism’s oldest sacred texts. Below, one sees the reproduction of the Sanskrit text in Devanagari script, its Romanized transliteration, the translation, and Weber’s scholarly commentary. The latter two sections are in Latin, which, even in the mid-19th century, remained the premier language for dissertations and theses in many European universities.

Figures 4-7 – Weber’s dissertation focused on 34 verses from the Yajur Veda. He first reproduced the Sanskrit text in Devanagari script (upper left) and provided its Romanization (upper right). He translated the text into Latin (lower right) and supplied commentary and additional references in the endnotes. Asian Division.

Figures 4 – 7 – Weber’s dissertation focused on 34 verses from the Yajur Veda. He first reproduced the Sanskrit text in Devanagari script (upper left) and provided its Romanization (upper right). He translated the text into Latin (lower right) and supplied commentary and additional references in the endnotes. Asian Division.

Figures 4-7 – Weber’s dissertation focused on 34 verses from the Yajur Veda. He first reproduced the Sanskrit text in Devanagari script (upper left) and provided its Romanization (upper right). He translated the text into Latin (lower right) and supplied commentary and additional references in the endnotes. Asian Division.

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Another distinguishing feature of many items in the Weber collection is the presence of marginalia. The photo below is an example of Weber’s handwritten notes inserted into and written on his books. Here, Weber writes Devanagari and Romanized Sanskrit in one of his many copies of the classical Sanskrit drama “Shakuntala.” His notes show how he divides long Sanskrit compounds according to sandhi, or “joining” – the rules by which the final and initial letters of words come together or stand apart. They also demonstrate his deep knowledge of the many versions and variations of a particular work. For example, Weber’s marginalia occurs throughout his copy of the German scholar Richard Pischel’s Bengali recension of “Shakuntala,” indicating where the wording differs in the play’s different recensions. For scholars interested in the history of European Indology, especially German Indology, this marginalia offers important insight into Weber’s text-critical methods.

Figure 8 – In his copy of Richard Pischel’s Bengali recension of Shakuntala (1877), Weber inserted several pages of notes (left). These notes, as well as the marginalia throughout the text (right), mark the different words and phrases used in other recensions of this classical Sanskrit drama.

Figure 8 – In his copy of Richard Pischel’s Bengali recension of Shakuntala (1877), Weber inserted several pages of notes (left). These notes, as well as the marginalia throughout the text (right), mark the different words and phrases used in other recensions of this classical Sanskrit drama.

For those interested in consulting items in LC’s Weber collection, please see the Asian Division’s rare book policy. You can also use our Ask-a-Librarian form to set up the necessary appointment with a South Asia reference librarian before accessing rare materials for research.

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