GELDNER, KARL FRIEDRICH, German scholar of Iranian and Indian studies (1852-1929; Figure 1). 1. Life. Geldner was born the son of a parson in Saalfeld on Saale, Thuringia, on 17 December 1852. He studied Sanskrit and the Avesta at Leipzig in 1871 with Windisch and Brockhaus. In 1872, he moved to Tübingen where Rudolph von Roth had created a renowned center of Indological studies. He received his doctoral degree from Tübingen in 1875 and passed his habilitation in 1876. He was nominated professor without fixed pay in 1883 at Tübingen; he moved to Halle in 1887 and was appointed extraordinary professor there in 1890. A few months later, an extraordinary chair at the University of Berlin was offered to him. In Berlin, he was active for nearly seventeen years as an excellent teacher who attracted students from many parts of the world. He was appointed professor in ordinary at Marburg in 1907. Although emeritus after 1921, he continued to lecture as before. Geldner died on 5 February 1929. The only substantial travel in his life was in the 1870s when he went to Copenhagen for the collation of Avesta manuscripts.

2. Works. Geldner’s first significant work appeared in 1874 while he was still a student, in the form of an answer to a prize essay question posed by the Philosophical Faculty at Tübingen. The essay was expanded and published in 1877 under the title Über die Metrik des jüngeren Avesta (On the meter of the Younger Avesta). In that paper Geldner showed that the majority of the Younger Avesta texts were composed in metrical form. Normally a line had eight syllables, but ten or twelve syllables also occurred. A regular distribution of long and short syllables could not be identified. The indigenous tradition had no knowledge of a metrical form for the Younger Avesta in contrast to the Gathas, where the meter furnished the principle of arrangement in the ritual and in the manuscripts.

Geldner’s doctrine of the meter of the Younger Avesta was used by Hermann Lommel to connect the possibility of emending the text with the help of the metrical form to F. C. Andreas’ theory of an original text of the Avesta written without letters for long vowels (“Untersuchungen über die Metrik des jüngeren Awesta,” Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik 1, 1922, p. 185-245; 5, 1926, pp. 1-92). Since Andreas’ theory was erroneous, Lommel’s articles were generally discredited. Then a new theory concerning the meter of the Younger Avesta was introduced by Johannes Hertel (Beiträge zur Metrik des Awestas, Abhandlungen der sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Leipzig, 1928). According to him, the normal line of the Younger Avesta is based not on syllable count but on arsis, of which there are four per line. Later H. Weller and W. B. Henning followed Hertel. Thus the use of metrical arguments for the emendation of the text seemed to be inapplicable. Recently, however, N. Oettinger has shown that Geldner’s theory combined with sound textual criticism supply mutual support and evidence (“Untersuchungen zur avestischen Sprache am Beispiel des Ardvīsūr-Yašt,” unpublished habilitation, Munich, 1983). Furthermore, the Younger Avesta line with eight syllables can be related historically to the Vedic meters of the gāyatrī-family which were mostly sung and not recited like the meters of the triṣṭubh-jagatī-family, to which the Gathas belong (B. Schlerath, “Der Terminus aw. Gāθā,” Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 25, 1969, 99-103.)

After he had received his doctoral degree, Geldner was pressed by Roth to replace Westergaard’s edition of the Avesta with a revised edition. He himself would have preferred to work in the field of Vedic studies. He hoped to complete the task in a few years, but the mass of more than 120 manuscripts which had to be described and collated prolonged the work until 1895. The first volume (Yasna) appeared in 1886; the second volume (Visprad and Ḵorda Avesta) followed in 1889; the third (Vendidad) was issued in 1895 together with the Prolegomena (an edition with prolegomena and apparatus also appeared in English: Avesta, the Sacred Books of the Parsis, 3 vols., Stuttgart, 1896, 1891 and 1896). Geldner often spoke of the fifteen years he had lost working on the Avesta.

Through his laborious work, Geldner gained the highest scholarly reputation, especially among the Parsees. Geldner’s greatest accomplishment was undoubtedly the Prolegomena, which provided an exact description of all manuscripts and their genealogical relationship. It provided a firm foundation for all further study of the text of the Avesta. The Prolegomena represented the final stage of Geldner’s study of the Avesta, and thus the edition itself sometimes contained inferior readings which Geldner would not have included after he had determined the definitive formulation of the stemma as given in the Prolegomena. This fact has not always been taken into due consideration by later scholars. (For details see K. Hoffmann and J. Narten, Der Sasanidische Archetypus, Wiesbaden, 1989, pp. 15-22.)

While working on his edition of the Avesta, Geldner published two booklets and several articles about Avesta problems (see bibliography). In these publications, he mostly translated single chapters of the Avesta and gave detailed grammatical and philological commentaries on them. Thanks to his astute intuition and impressive interpretative skills, he revealed the meaning of many obscure passages. His approach was entirely different from that of his colleague Christian Bartholomae, who usually began with the interpretation of grammatical or phonological problems. Nonetheless, the two scholars had great respect for each other (for an example of this mutual respect, see Bartholomae’s remarks in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 28, 1885, p. 3).

After 1895, Geldner worked almost exclusively on Vedic studies. Only two publications on Iranian topics appeared after that date (“Die altpersische Literatur,” in Kultur der Gegenwart I/7, Berlin and Leipzig, 1906, pp. 214-34 and “Die zoroastrische Religion ,” an anthology of translated texts which first appeared in Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, ed. A. Bertholet, Tübingen, 1908 and which was also published as a separate book, Tübingen, 1911, 2nd ed., 1926).

Geldner’s collaboration with R. Pischel was decisive in shaping his understanding of the Rig-Veda. Their approach to the text was contrary to that of Geldner’s teacher R. von Roth; that is, they reacted strongly against Roth’s tendency to underestimate the indigenous tradition (especially in the case of Sāyaṇa’s commentary on the Rig-Veda), to apply a purely linguistic approach in methodology, and to explain the mythology from an Indo-European or Indo-Iranian point of view. Instead, Geldner and Pischel thought the Rig-Veda should be explained in close connection with the later cultural and religious history of India. Their teamwork bore fruit in the publication of Vedische Studien, Stuttgart, 1889-1901. In Marburg, after 1907, Geldner concentrated his energy on preparing a translation of and commentary on the Rig-Veda. He began there to moderate the extreme position of the Vedische Studien and drew nearer to Roth’s position. Geldner was gratified that he was able to send his monumental translation to the printer before his death in 1928. The first volume was printed but not released to the public; the entire work was published later (Der Rig-Veda aus dem Sanskrit ins Deutsche übersetzt, London and Wiesbaden, 3 vols, 1951). Geldner’s translation of the Rig-Veda continues to be an indispensable tool of Vedic research.



A complete bibliography does not exist; J. Nobel’s bibliography in Indogermanisches Jahrbuch 14, 1930, pp. 370 sq. excludes the articles. Publications in addition to those mentioned in the article include: Studien zum Avesta. Heft 1, Strassburg 1882 (more not published). Drei Yasht aus dem Zendavesta Übersetzt und erklärt, Stuttgart, 1884 (contains Yt. 14, 17 and 19).

Articles dealing with Avesta problems appeared in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 24, 1877, p. 128-47; 25, 1881, pp. 179-211, 378-418, 465-589; 27, 1882, pp. 225-61, 577-88; 28, 1885, pp. 256-65; 30, 1890, pp. 316-34, 514-33; 31, 1892, pp. 319-22.

Obituaries, biographical sketches: Helmut Hoffmann, Neue Deutsche Biographie 6, 1964, p. 172-73.

Hermann Jacobsohn, Universitätsband Marburg, Heft 24, April 1929.

Johannes Nobel, Indogermanisches Jahrbuch 14, 1930, pp. 363-71.

Emil Sieg, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik, Band 7, 1929, pp. 1-7.

Idem, Deutsches Biographisches Jahrbuch XI. Das Jahr 1929, 1932, pp. 110-13.

(Bernfried Schlerath)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: February 7, 2012

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