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Prof. Dr. Günther-Dietz Sontheimer (†)

On 2nd June, 1992, Professor Dr. Günther-Dietz Sontheimer died suddenly and unexpectedly in his house in Dossenheim at the age of 58. His death is an irreplaceable loss for his friends and colleagues as well as for the academic world. He represented a trend in Indology which must be regarded as revolutionary - especially in Germany - in comparison to traditional classical Indology. He combined knowledge of classical legal texts (dharmashastra) with empirical research on religion, archaeology and history of art. He saw Hinduism as a continuum from the 'Great Tradition' through folk culture. The basis for his studies was a thorough knowledge of modern regional languages in addition to Sanskrit; his approach was founded on empirical observation, carried out regularly and very often during his 'field trips'.


In Memoriam

Origin and childhood

Günther-Dietz Sontheimer was born on 21st April, 1934, in Ulm on the Danube. His father, Dr. Walter Sontheimer, had been posted there from Stuttgart as headmaster of the 'Gymnasium'. His mother, Herma Sontheimer, neé Dietz, came from Bromberg, capital of the Prussian province of Posen till 1919. Thus, Günther Sontheimer was half south and half east German in origin. His mother's surname was added to his Christian name, but among his friends he was known as just Günther - or, in India, affectionately, as Gunther Rao. During World War II, the family moved to the old home of his mother, where Günther attended primary school for a couple of years. In November, 1945 he joined the second form at the Eberhard-Ludwigs-Gymnasium in Stuttgart and received his Abitur in February, 1953.

Authors like Manfred Kyber, Rudyard Kipling and Waldemar Bonsels implanted an early interest in India in his mind. Already during his schooldays Günther was actively involved in the Indo-German Society in Stuttgart, and served for some time as its secretary. One of the founders of the first Indian students' association {Bharat Majlis) in Germany, he was also for a long time a board member of this association. At that time, Stuttgart was already the centre of Indo-German activities, Adalbert Seifriz and Giselher Wirsing being the most prominent personalities in this field.

Academic studies

It was, therefore, not too surprising that after his Abitur Günther wanted to study Indology. But his father expressed reservation because he felt that this subject did not have any career prospects. Therefore he told his son to study law 'full time' and Indology merely as a subsidiary subject. This is what Sontheimer did in nearby Tübingen. Understandably, it was de facto the other way round: Indology was his first priority. Nonetheless, he passed his first state examination in law in December, 1957.

At that time, Helmuth von Glasenapp held the chair of Indology at the University of Tübingen. He was different from his German colleagues in so far as he had been to India several times and thus was also interested in contemporary India, especially in its religions. Accordingly, and certainly also influenced by his activities within the Bharat Majlis, Sontheimer not only studied Sanskrit and the Indological canon, but also Hindi.

After finishing his studies of law, Sontheimer applied for a scholarship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in order to pursue further studies in India. From June, 1958, to May, 1961, he studied history of Hindu law, Anglo-Hindu law and modern Hindu law at the Law College of Poona University under the guidance of Principal G. V. Pandit. He read Sanskrit law texts with Professor V. M. Bedekar, and dedicated himself to learning Marathi and deepening his knowledge of Hindi.

The most important experience of Sontheimer's stay in Poona was meeting and working with the renowned Indian historian and mathematician D. D. Kosambi. Kosambi took him along on many of his field trips in Maharashtra, and thus set the course for Sontheimer's own scholarly programme. Kosambi himself combined philological, religious and social-anthropolocial approaches. By working with him, Sontheimer was able to gain insights into the origin and efI'ects of ideas that can also be found, among other places, in ancient Indian legal texts.

In Poona, Sontheimer became aware of the works of Professor J. D. M. Derrett, professor of Oriental law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London, and contacted him from India. Derrett is considered to be the foremost scholar on Hindu law. He invited Sontheimer to be his Ph.D.-student, and Sontheimer studied in London from October, 1961 till April, 1965.

Sontheimer's thesis for a 'postgraduate diploma in Law' was based on material he had gathered in India. The subject of the thesis was 'The Concept of Daya: a Comparative Study'. The thesis dealt with a fundamental principle of Sanskrit inheritance law, and was rated by his examiners, Professor Derrett and Professor Gledhill, as outstanding. Sontheimer passed a written examination in British legal methods in 1962. In October, 1965 he was awarded the degree of Ph.D. for a thesis on 'The Joint Hindu Family: its Evolution as a Legal Institution'. This work is based primarily on Sanskrit texts but also takes into account modern developments, i.e., the influence of British and modern Indian law.

It would have been tempting for Sontheimer to remain at SOAS. He could have become a lecturer and a reader there. During Professor Derrett's absence as a visiting professor in the USA Sontheimer had already substituted for him for a semester. But then Professor Hermann Berger offered Sontheimer a position as a research scholar in the department of Indology of the newly founded South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg. Günther Sontheimer wanted, as he himself later wrote, to re-establish in Germany 'in a modest way', the study of Sanskrit Law which had been disrupted through the war. Furthermore, he also wanted to tackle other Indological subjects, and he thought the South Asia Institute would be the ideal place to pursue these goals. He came to Heidelberg in summer, 1965.

Scholar and Academic Teacher

Günther Sontheimer worked at the South Asia Institute For more than a quarter of a century. His career there had the following stages:

- 1974
Habilitation and appointment as Universitätsdozent and Head of the Department of History of Religion and Philosophy (Indology III)
- 1977
Extra-ordinary Professor - 1979 Professor (C 3).

These years were very fruitful: he published three monographs and about 50 articles, edited (together with colleagues) several volumes of articles, and was the general editor of two series: Neuindische Studien (together with Hermann Berger and Lothar Lutze) and the South Asian Digest of Regional Writing (together with Lothar Lutze). He translated a novel from Marathi into German: Das Dorf hieß Bangarvadi (The Village was Called Bangarvadi) by Vyankatesh Madgulkar. Among Sontheimer's many achievements were included four films, the first made in collaboration with Günther Unbescheid, the others with Henning Stegmüller.

During his 27 years at the South Asia Institute, Günther Sontheimer spent a considerable part of his time in India. From 1973 to 1975 he was the Representative of the Institute at its Branch Ofiice in New Delhi; each year, he spent several months in India. He spoke Marathi and Hindi fluently; he also knew Tamil and Kannada. He was more at home in India, especially the Deccan, than almost any other foreigner.

Sontheimer's research interests may be classified as follows: 1. Hindu Law; 2. the culture of pastoralist nomads on the Deccan, especially of the Dhangars; 3. bhakti, Hindu ethics; 4. Marathi literature and 5. the position of folk religion within Hinduism. His main subject, undoubtedly, was the religion and history of pastoralist society in the Deccan, the origin and development of local cults, and their relation to the classical tradition. He collected the oral traditions of these groups, especially those of the semi-nomadic Dhangars. He spent so much time with the Dhangars that they finally came to regard him as one of them. The primary academic product of this intensive field-work was his Habilitation thesis: Biroba, Mhaskoba and Khandoba : Ursprung, Geschichte und Umwelt von pastoralen Gottheiten in Maharastra (English Translation: Pastoral Deities in Western India, 1989).

He continued writing many articles on this subject. The peak of his work on the Dhangars, however, was reached with his films, to which he dedicated much of his energy during the last phase of his life. These Films have not only been presented to the scholarly world but were also shown on German television. The premiere of his last film, König Khandobas Jagdausflug (King Khandoba's Hunting Trip), on lOth July, 1992 in Heidelberg was at the same time an academic homage to him. Due to the rapid modernisation in India, the world of the Dhangars is already endangered, and thus these films represent a unique scholarly documentation. Only Sontheimer could have made them. Urban Indians are hardly interested in this part of the population ('backward fellows'), other foreigners would not have been admitted to these groups. Only Sontheimer enjoyed their confidence, only he had the requisite knowledge, love and veneration for them. In this sense, as in others, it is no exaggeration to say that Sontheimer's death is an irreplaceable loss.

In 1980, he published an eighty-seven-page article on 'Die Ethik im Hinduismus' ('Ethics in Hinduism') in : Ethik der Religionen (Ethics of Religions) edited by Karl-Heinz Ratschow. In this article, Sontheimer approaches his subject very carefully and from a number of explicitly differentiated points of view. The article makes active use of his knowledge of dharmashastra and bhakti, literature as well as folk religion. According to Sontheimer, there is nothing like the ethics oF Hinduism, just as there is no one Hinduism. Consequently, Sontheimer mentions advaita, the ethics or non-ethics of which are usually stressed or even absolutized in Western depictions of Hinduism, only fleetingly. Folk religion is as characteristic of and as important in Hinduism as any Sanskrit texts. Folk religion indicates the extent to which the conceptions of 'high religion' are really effective. Sontheimer finds a high degree of discrepancy between classical texts and living folk religion. And he sees no fundamental breach between traditional Hinduism and Neo-Hinduism: there are fluid transitions between the two.

What Sontheimer identified, at a symposium in memory of Hermann Goetz, as Goetz's concern was also his own: that Indian culture cannot be understood through classical, Sanskrit texts alone; that only a combination of different sources can preclude a onesided image of India; and that only a balanced interpretation of seemingly contradictory sources can produce an adequate picture.

In spite of all his reservations about abstract theory, Sontheimer always strove to grasp the phenomenon as a whole, and thus to do justice to its complexity. What he finally came to was not a formula, but the cognition that Hinduism can only be described adequately as a juxtaposition of 'five components', which not only coexist, but also influence one another and pervade one another. These five components are: l. teachings and works of Brahmins, 2. the idea of world renunciation, 3. tribal religions, 4. folk religion, and 5. bhakti. The characterization and description of Hinduism as a constellation or combination of these five components instead of as a homogenous whole may be regarded as the quintessence of Sontheimer's many individual studies and thus as a kind of intellectual legacy. He presented this idea for the first time at the European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies in Wilhelmsfeld near Heidelberg in 1986, and again in 1987 in Darmstadt and, finally, once again in Heidelberg, in the context of a series of public lectures held by the South Asia Institute, ten days before his death.

His death on 2nd June, 1992, came as a shock to all who knew him. In Maharashtra, the sad tidings made the front page of the newspapers. With Günther Sontheimer, we have lost not only an internationally renowned and excellent scholar, but also a very dear and beloved teacher, colleague and friend. His spacious flat in Dossenheim was a base and temporary dwelling for friends and guests from all over the world, especially, of course, for those from India. The fact that a world-wide group of scholars working on Maharashtra has evolved is largely due to his interest. It is a solace that Günther Sontheimer could gather all of them at a conference in Heidelberg in 1988. His constant commuting between Germany and India expressed his endeavours for a continuous exchange between the two countries, both of students and colleaques. He secured many scholarships in both directions. He once called himself a mediator, living on a bridge between the cultures.

His admirers and friends in India are planning to hold a 'Memorial Conference' in honor of him. The best memorial, however, would be the realization of his old plan to set up a museum at Jejuri, the pilgrimage place of God Khandoba.

— Jürgen Lütt;
(translation by Stephanie Zingel-Avé Lallemant and Anne Feldhaus)

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