MORIZ WINTERNITZ - German Indologist 1863-1937

Published: 26.07.2007
Updated: 03.01.2011


Moriz Winternitz was an outstanding scholar who wrote on religion, folk­lore, the epics and Sanskrit literature. He is best remembered for his "His­tory of Indian Literature,“ a work in three volumes, which is considered indispensable for teachers and stu­dents alike. Winternitz was also one of the co-sponsors of a critical edition of the Mahabharata, a project that held his attention throughout his life.

Moriz Winternitz was born on 23.12.1863 in Horn, lower Austria into the family of a merchant. In 1880, Winternitz went to Wien where he began to study classical philology and philosophy. Influenced by G. Buehler and E. Hultzsch, he took up the study of Indology. In 1886, Winternitz submitted his doctoral thesis. An enlarged version was published by the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Wien in 1892 under the title Das altindische Hochzeitsritual nach dem Apastambiya Grihyasutra und einigen verwandten Werken. Mit Vergleichung der Hochzeitsgebraeuche bei den uebrigen indogermanischen Voelkern ("Ancient Indian marriage ritual according to the Apastambiya Grihyasutra and other related works. Together with a comparison of marriage customs among Indo-European peoples"). In 1887, Winternitz published the first critical edition of the Apastambiya Grihyasutra, together with extracts from the commentaries of Haradatta and Sudarsanarya.

Two years after obtaining a Ph.D. degree, Winternitz went to Oxford. There, on G. Buehler's recommendation, he became an assistant to Max Mueller. He held this post till 1892. Later, he worked as a teacher in the Oxford High School for Girls, as lecturer of German at the Association for the Promotion of Higher Education for Women in Oxford and as private tutor of German and Sanskrit. For some time he was on the Examination Board of the Indian Civil Service. In 1895 he became librarian of the Indian Institute, Oxford. He stayed in Oxford until 1898.

In 1899, Winternitz went to Prag and was appointed reader of Indo-Aryan philology and ethnology. In 1911 he was appointed a professor. In 1921, Rabindranath Tagore, whom Winternitz greatly admired, visited Prag. On his invitation, Winternitz spent a year at the Vishvabharati Uni­versity, Shantiniketan. He lectured and travelled extensively in India. He retired from the University of Prag in 1934 and died on 9.1.1937.

While assisting Max Mueller in the second edition of the Rigveda, Winternitz added references to texts that had been published after the printing of first edition. He also collated the manuscripts. He prepared the general index to the 49 volumes of "Sacred Books of the East". The index published in 1910 under the title "A Concise Dictionary of Eastern Religion". He catalogued the Whish collection of South Indian manuscripts of the Royal Asiatic Society, London.

Winternitz returned to the subject of his doctoral thesis and published the mantras of the Apastambins, The Mantrapatha or the prayer book of the Apastambins, edited together with the commentary of Haradatta and translated, 1897. Winternitz also contributed many essays on Indian and Indo-European religion, cult, and customs to various journals, e.g., Der Sarpabali, ein altindischer Schlangenkult ("The Sarpabali, an ancient Indian snake cult"); On Sraddhas and Ancestral Worship among the Indo-European nations; On Witchcraft in Ancient India; On the choice of bride according to the Bharadvajagrihyasutra, and On the doctrine of the Ashramas.

While working on Sanskrit manuscripts, Winternitz realised that South Indian manuscripts were valuable for the reconstruction of the Mahabharata text. In 1897, he published Notes on the Mahabharata in "Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society." He stressed the need of publishing a critical edition of the great epic. A year later he wrote On the Mahabharata manuscripts in the Whish collection of the Royal Asiatic Society and Ganesha in the Mahabharata in the same journal. In 1899, Winternitz wrote "A Proposal for the Formation of a Sanskrit Epic Text Society to be laid before the Indian Section of the Xllth International Congress of Orientalists held at Rome". Winternitz discussed the authorship of the Mahabharata in a paper, Genesis des Mahabharata. Unlike Joseph Dahlmann, Winternitz felt that the epic was not the work of one author. It contained too many repetitions and contradictions. Other papers of Winternitz on Mahabharata are: The Mahabharata and the Drama and Brihaddevata and Mahabharata and Flutsagen des Altertums und der Naturvoelker ("Flood Legends in Antiquity anoVamong primitive people"), 1901. He compared the story of Manu with more than seventy other legends concerning the deluge. In the same year he submitted a "Promemoria" on the critical Mahabharata edition. Collec­tions of Mahabharata manuscripts in European libraries were prepared, but World War I put an end to this work. After the War, in 1918, the plans were again taken up and work on the critical edition of the great epic was begun at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute at Poona. Winternitz was made a member of the Honorary Board of Referees and also a member of the Mahabharata Editorial Board.

Wintemitz's major work was Geschichte der Indischen Literatur ("History of Indian Literature"). The first volume was published in two parts in 1905 and 1908. It dealt with Vedic literature, the epics and Puranas. The second volume on Buddhist and Jain literature appeared in two parts, in 1913 and 1920. In the last volume, Kavya literature and scientific literature found a representation. A bird's eye view of the vernacular literature of modern India completed that volume published in 1922. The value of the work was enhanced by copious notes. The English translation was revised by Winternitz himself. The first volume was published in Calcutta in 1927, the second in 1933. The treatment of Buddhist Sanskrit literature in the English transla­tion represented a new edition. Winternitz died before the third volume could be revised. A reprint appeared in Delhi 1983,1985 and 1987.

Winternitz also wrote on Buddhist subjects. He contributed an anthology of Buddhism to Bertholet's Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, 1908. A revised edition in 1929 (as No. 11 of the Lesebuch) was entitled Deraeltere Buddhismus nach Texten des Tripitaka ("Earlier Buddhism according to Tripitaka texts") This was followed in 1930 by Der Mahayana Buddhismus nach Sanskrit-und Prakrittexten {Mahayana Buddhism according to Sanskrit and Prakrit texts) and Die Jataka in ihrer Bedeutung fuer die indische und ausserindische Kunst ("The Jatakas and their significance for Indian and extra-Indian art").

A bibliography of Wintemitz's works was compiled by O. Stein and W. Gampert. It was published in 1934 in "Acta Orientalia", Prag. It lists 452 titles and shows the wide range Of Winternitz's scholarship.


Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, India

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