Europe Looks At India – Buddhism And The Superman

The preceding chapters attempted an analysis of the European response to the discovery of the East, the way in which some outstanding leaders of Western thought at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nine-teenth century reacted to Indian religions, philosophy, and art. What began as an intellectual adventure, political curiosity, and a desire to convert the heathens, soon became part of a mental attitude and a moral valuation, both of them so characteristic of the newly arisen middle-class intelligentsia of early nineteenth-century Europe. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History and Gobineau’s Inequality of Human Races we have witnessed the first attempts at rationalizing the ‘magic’ of the East. Both had their formulas ready. All they had to do was to apply them to what they considered to be India. And although they started from different points, they reached the same conclusion : India has no history and, therefore, no culture of her own; it is only in the Western ‘lobe’ of the human mind that progress has its being; and as civilization is not possible without progress, the achievements of India in the realm of religion, art and philosophy, seemed to them, at best, of purely archaeological interest.

It may be noted that we have hardly ever as yet spoken of an ‘influence’ of Indian thought on the West. Considering the almost complete ignorance of European writers and thinkers with regard to India, there could be no question of any influence whatsoever. It was only after a certain amount of knowledge had been accumulated that the more difficult process of adjustment and assimilation could begin. It is this assimilation of know-ledge’ that leads to cultural influences. The Iridologists had paved the way : the intelligentsia had only to apply that new kind of knowledge to their own spiritual pre-occupations. And as, neither Christianity nor the classical cultures of Greece and Rome were found satisfactory any longer, they could without any great difficulties adjust themselves, their attitude to life and their system of values, to the newly acquired ‘wisdom of the East’. On the other hand, they could also ‘react’ to it with greater conviction than ever before : for integrated knowledge produces a more mature response than wishful thinking. The German romantics deceived themselves into accepting an India of their own imagination : it was against this illusion that Hegel protested. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s enthusiasm for the Upanishads and Buddhism was based at least upon a partial study of the original texts in translations; and Nietzsche’s protest was directed as much against Schopenhauer’s own philosophy as against Deussen’s interpretation of the Vedanta. The difference between Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s response indeed consisted in the fact that the former attacked a foreign civilization and ways of life of which he knew very little, while Nietzsche had Schopenhauer’s philosophy and the first attempts of Indologists in the realm of philosophy and religion, such as Deussen’s, to go by.

Schopenhauer became first acquainted with India in the winter of 1813-1814 during a stay at Weimar. One of Goethe’s friends, the Orientalist Friedrich Majer, introduced him to the ‘hidden treasures’ of Indian antiquity which, as Schopenhauer himself says ‘was of utmost importance to me’. We also find from the register kept at the Weimar Library that Schopenhauer issued during these winter months the first three volumes of the ‘Asiatische Magazine’ (1806-7), edited by Beck, Haensel and Baumgaertner, which he kept for four months, Madame de Bolier’s Mythologie des Hindous (1809) for three months, and lastly the Oupnek’hat. This Oupnek’hat was Schopenhauer’s main source of knowledge regarding India and the Hindu religion. Professor Winternitz, in his History of Indian Literature, tells us the story of this first translation of the Upanishads into Western languages. They were first translated in the seventeenth cen

tury into Persian by the brother of Aurangzeb, Prince Muhammed-Dara Shukoh, the son of Shah Jehan. The first translation in Latin appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the French scholar Anquetil du Perron under the title Oupnek’hat (1801/2). Anquetil du Perron’s translation from the Persian into Latin is faulty and full of misinterpretations; it is, however, of the greatest importance if we want to assess correctly the ‘influence’ of India on the western mind during the nineteenth century. For both Schelling and Schopenhauer came to know and understand Hinduism through the medium of this Oupnek’hat: ‘It was not,’ says Winternitz, ‘the Upanishads as we know and explain them now with all the material of Indian philosophy now accessible to as and our more definite knowledge of the whole philosophy of the Indians, but the Oupnek’hat, that absolutely imperfect Perso-Latin translation of Anquetil du Perron which Schopenhauer declared to be “the production of the highest human wisdom.”

Schopenhauer’s enthusiasm for the Upanishads indeed knew no bounds. His attitude is from the very beginning essentially personal; for the reading of the Oupnek’hat has opened the possibility of a new faith, fundamentally emotional in character. His constant references to Christianity and the ‘Jewish superstitions’ implied in it, indicate the beginning of a new search for religious values, coloured, however, by strong racial prejudices. For according to Schopenhauer, Christianity was essentially an upshoot of the Jewish religion, and he was neither the first nor the last in the history of German scholarship to resent the semitic imposition on the cultural and religious life of the Aryans. We shall, indeed, find Hinduism opposed to Judaism again at the end of the nineteenth century in the work of Austen Steward Chamberlain. Schopenhauer’s discovery of the Upanishads, therefore, provided him with a personal philosophy, on the one hand, and a counterpart to Christianity and Judaism, on the other : ‘And O ! how the mind is here washed clean of all its early ingrafted Jewish superstition ! It is the most profitable and elevating reading which (the original text excepted) is possible in the world. It has been the solace of my life, and will be the solace of my death.’

When, after 1818, he added Buddhism to Hinduism, his opposition between Christianity and Indian religions became identical with the conflict between intellect and reason, on the one hand, emotion and intuition, on the other : ‘Buddhism is profounder than Christianity, because it makes the destruction of the will the entirety of religion, and preaches Nirvana as the goal of all personal development. The Hindus were deeper than the thinkers of Europe, because their interpretation of the world was internal and intuitive, not external and intellectual; the intellect divides everything, intuition unites every-thing; the Hindus saw that the “I” is a delusion; that the individual is merely phenomenal, and that the only reality is the infinite One “That art thou”.’* What drew Schopenhauer to the religion of the Buddha was the pessimistic fundamental view of life, the doctrine of misery and the ethics of Buddhism. The morality of Christianity, he says at one place, is inferior to that of Buddhism and Brahmanism as it does not take into ac-count animals. In his Aphorisms and Fragments on Religion and Theology he says : ‘Buddha, Eckhard and myself teach essentially the same thing. Eckhard does so in the fetters of his Christian mythology. In Buddhism the same thoughts are there, without being spoilt by such mythology, and therefore simple and clear, so far as reality can be. In me there is perfect clearness.’T The fact, however, remains that the admiration of Schopenhauer for Buddhism rests upon a very defective know-ledge of the religion, as in his time very little was known of the oldest Buddhist literature.

It is of particular interest to find that Schopenhauer constantly refers his discovery of Hindu and Buddhist religion to his own philosophy. It seemed to him that a complete identity of views had been established between him and the religions of ancient India, and that from now on ‘the influence of Sanskrit literature will penetrate (into Europe) not less deeply than did the revival of Greek letters in the fifteenth century.’ Had he known Buddhism more fully, he might have doubted this complete identity of views. Schopenhauer, indeed, attempted what many Europeans after him did with more or less success, namely to adapt whatever he knew of Indian religion to his own philosophy. A superficial acquaintance with Buddhism brought to light a number of similarities which could not but strike Schopenhauer as extremely significant. For, apart from flattering his vanity, it went a long way to prove the need of a revaluation of ethical and religious standards. And it was this diluted form of Buddhism, sentimentalized and made accessible to the aver-age man, that he put before the Western reading public. His justification is, strangely enough, based upon the quantitative superiority of Buddhism over any other religion on earth : ‘If I were to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I would be obliged to concede to Buddhism the pre-eminence over the rest. In any case it must be a satisfaction to me to see my teaching in such close agreement with a religion which the majority of men upon the earth hold ‘as their own; for it numbers far more adherents than any other. This agreement, however, must be the more satisfactory to me because in my philosophising I have certainly not been under its influence. For up till 1818, when my work appeared, there were very few, exceedingly incomplete and scanty, accounts of Buddhism to be found in Europe, which were almost entirely limited to a few essays in the earlier volumes of ” Asiatic Researches ” and were principally concerned with the Buddhism of the Burmese.

We quite believe Schopenhauer when he says that he reached his conclusions independently of any outside ‘influence’. No one indeed represents better than Schopenhauer the malaise of the nineteenth century, that peculiar synthesis of dissatisfaction and revolt, the divided mind of the thinker who foresees the doom of his own civilization and is at the same time deeply aware of his own helplessness. Mysticism, especially of the emotional kind, will from now on be the main method of escape for the Western mind when confronted by his own inability to transform thought into purposeful action. The failure of Christianity imposed upon them the duty to re-state the fundamental issues of life. No surprise, therefore, that they reached conclusions which, superficially speaking, resembled those of Buddhism. It is for this reason that Schopenhauer resented nothing more strongly than the attempt of European nations to convert the Indians to their own decaying religions : We. . . now send the Brahmins English clergymen and evangelical linen-weavers to set them right out of sympathy, and to show them that they are created out of nothing, and ought thankfully to rejoice in the fact. But it is just the same as if we fired a bullet against a cliff. In India our religions will never take root. The ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian philosophy streams back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought.

Beyond religious and philosophical revaluation, Schopenhauer also visualizes a new culture arising out of the influx of Eastern ideas and conception of life. A number of remarks dealing with art, for instance, make it quite clear that he was ready to respond in the same manner to the artistic sensibility of the East as he had already responded to Eastern religions. All he had to do was to apply his ‘philosophy’ to artistic productions in general, and especially in India : The less the will is excited,’ he says, the less we suffer. The great masterpieces of painting have always represented countenances in which we see the expression of the completest knowledge, which is not directed to particular things, but has. . . become the quieter of all will . ‘ Again : ‘Greek sculpture devotes itself to the perception, and therefore it is aesthetical. Indian sculpture devotes itself to the conception, and therefore it is merely syrnbolical.’T Symbolism of this kind could not but appeal to Schopenhauer, and if we remember Goethe’s ‘fear’ of this same symbolism, his in-ability to grasp the formless and irrational which such a symbolism implies, we shall realize the fundamental difference between Schopenhauer’s and Goethe’s attitude and response towards India. For Goethe it was never more than an enlargement and broadening of Western consciousness, an attempt to enrich and rejuvenate the civilization of Europe which he considered to be of essentially mediterranean origin ; while for Schopenhauer the discovery of India implied a new wisdom diametrically opposed to the rationalism of the West, a new attitude to life, based upon the denial of the will, which was going, sooner or later, to oust the intellectual rationalism of the West and the Judaeo-Christian conception of religion. And just as the early romantics had been exposed to the criticism of Hegel and the pseudo-scientific attacks of Gobineau, so also Schopenhauer found an opponent worthy of his greatness. For in Nietzsche the dualism which began with Goethe reaches its climax. His voice was in-deed, one of joyful affirmation of life. An early follower and admirer of Schopenhauer, he had, however, first to free himself from this influence. His early search for certainty, indeed symbolizes the coming effort of the twentieth century to see beyond Schopenhauer and his misconstrued Buddhism, into the reality of cultural processes. For Nietzsche was out to save what still remained of the European mind. And in order to build anew, he had to destroy first, not only Christianity, but also Buddhism whose influence became increasingly stronger during Nietzsche’s life-time. Schopenhauer had been the light and hope of his youth : only after having dissolved the dualism between intellect and intuition, and between good and evil, did he deny his master.


If we remember the tradition established by Hegel and Gobineau, we shall not be surprised to find Nietzsche on their side. For the step from the ‘white principle’ and the superiority of the West to a conception of the super-man as distinguished from the herd, is a very short one indeed. Metaphorically speaking, it was the Indian Brahmins who first of all enunciated the ideal of the superman : this implies, on the one hand, a withdrawal from the political life of the herd, and, on the other, an implicit obedience of the herd to the religious and moral commands of the ‘ruling’ caste. Nietzsche has nothing but praise for such a social system : ‘And in the case of the unique natures of noble origin, if by virtue of superior spirituality they should incline to a more retired and contemplative lift, reserving to themselves only the more refined forms of Government .(over chosen disciples or as members of an order), religion itself may be used as a means for obtaining peace from the noise and trouble of managing grosser affairs, and for securing immunity from the unavoidable filth of all political agitation. The Brahmins, for instance, understood this fact. With the help of a religious organization, they secured to themselves the power of nominating kings for the people, while their sentiments prompted them to keep apart and outside, as men with a higher and super-regal mission.

It would be a fatal misunderstanding to assume that Gobineau and Nietzsche in their pronouncements on the caste system are exceptions rather than the rule. No-where else can we study this split in the European consciousness better than in the attitudes of Western scholars and writers towards ancient social organization in India. On the one hand we find the tradition established by the Abbe Dubois who considers the caste system the most rational solution of all social problems. On the other hand there is the humanitarian tradition of the Roman-tics and Goethe, strongly condemning the caste system as unjust and opposed to the principles of human equality. In more recent times Tolstoy and Romain Rolland were upholding that very same tradition when they preached the return to a simplified, undogmatic, and universal kind of religion. But the forces of reaction were strong throughout the nineteenth century. And they still are at work now. Keyserling who by many is still supposed to be one of the best qualified exponents of Indian thought in Europe, writes in his Travel Diary : ‘No wonder, then, all who know India only superficially condemn it (caste) as a monstrosity. As a matter of fact, it justified itself fully as well as any other, which the more reasonable West has invented, because in India one factor is the main consideration which hardly arises in the West : an almost unlimited power of faith.’

Nietzsche, therefore, was by no means the only European in recent times to proclaim the superiority of a master-caste over all other castes. And if we remember the increasing interest taken in Buddhism at that time, Nietzsche’s insistence on the necessity of a ‘ruling’ caste will become quite consistent with his thesis of a superman who will guide the destinies of people in future. Wagner, the most intimate friend of his early manhood, and Schopenhauer, his contemporary, had both turned towards Buddhism, the former unconsciously, the latter as part of his philosophical doctrine. And the solitary Nietzsche realizes that the old aristocratic virtues and values are dying out: ‘Europe is threatened with a new Buddhism,’ he exclaims, ‘the whole of the morality of Europe is based upon the values which are useful to the herd … Goodness is to do nothing for which we are not strong enough.’ T Nietzsche looked, probably, deeper into the psychology of religious experiences than any one of his contemporaries. He knew that beyond denial, resignation, and non-attachment, the most joyful approval of human existence. Indeed he wanted to go beyond Buddha and the East. We do know what exactly he wanted to find there; in alI probability, a human ideal which is beyond good and evil, and yet striving after even greater perfection and fulfilment, an ideal of action, but action which would no longer be morally determined, indeed an ideal which is beyond East and West : ‘Whoever, with an Asiatic and super-Asiatic eve, has actually looked inside and into the most world-renouncing of all possible modes of thought beyond good and evil, and no longer like Buddha and Schopenhauer under the delusion and domination of morality,—whoever has done this, has perhaps just there-by, without really desiring it, opened his eyes to behold an opposite ideal: the ideal of the most world-approving, exuberant and vivacious man, who has not only learnt to compromise and arrange with that which was and is, but wishes to have it again as it was and is, for all eternity, insatiably calling out da capo, not only to himself, but to the whole piece and play.

In its final analysis Nietzsche, therefore, attempts to rise above both Buddhism and Christianity; for that undoubtedly is the meaning of the `super-Asiatic eye’. In the music of Wagner, for instance, he finds both of them side by side; and they both seem to him forms of the same cultural decline, the absence of aristocratic values, and of a will to greatness: `Wagner flatters every nihilistic Buddhistic instinct and disguises it in music; he flatters every kind of Christianity and every religious form and expression of decadence. Richard Wagnera decrepit and desperate romantic, collapsed suddenly before the Holy Cross. Was there no German with eyes to see, with pity in his conscience to bewail, this horrible spectacle? …’* That actually Wagner was profoundly affected by the new Buddhism propagated by Schopenhauer and his followers, and that he was deeply attracted by the doctrine of salvation and the ethics of compassion, can be seen from a letter written by him in 1859 to Mathilde Wesendonck : ‘You know how I have unconsciously become a Buddhist …Yes, child, it is a world view, compared with which every other dogma must appear small and narrow.’ t

It is of particular interest to follow Nietzsche’s evolution regarding his attitude towards India. Most of the statements quoted in the preceding paragraphs were made after the publication of Thus Spake Zarathustra and, therefore, constitute Nietzsche’s final judgement of things Eastern and especially Buddhism. A few ex-tracts from his letters, most of them written to his friend Paul Deussen, the famous Indologist, may, however, elucidate Nietzsche’s gradually increasing interest in India and the way he reacted to the impact of Eastern philosophy and religions. The first letter in which India is mentioned is addressed to his childhood friend von Gresdorff and deals with Nietzsche’s first encounter with a missionary. It shows a peculiar though vague admiration of the Upanishads, for which in all probability Schopenhauer was responsible, and an implicit contempt for Europeans who, devoid of all intellectual discernment, want to convert and ‘civilize’ the ‘Brahmins’: ‘I have come across, however, a sufficient number of instances,’ he says, ‘to realize how dim frequently is the intellect of men. The other day I talked to one who wanted shortly to go out as a missionary to India. I asked him a few questions. He had read no Indian book, had never heard even the name of the Oupnek’hat and had decided not to trust the Brahmins, because they were philosophically so corrupt. Sacred Ganges !’ About ten years later Paul Deussen communicates to him his plan of translating ancient Hindu texts and of expounding the philosophy of the Vedas. Nietzsche is overjoyed, expresses the greatest admiration for this work and bitterly complains at the complete lack of authoritative books on Indian philosophy : ‘Your plan seems to me to deserve an even higher praise, if you intend to devote your painfully earned leisure-time to such a noble life-work as to make accessible to us Indian philosophy in good translations. If only I knew means of encouraging you in such an enterprise, how much would I like to encourage you ! My praise may satisfy you, but even more so my longing to drink from that source which you one day want to open for us all. If you only knew with what uneasiness I have always thought about Indian philosophy ! What I forcibly was made to feel when Professor X (who has devoted ‘himself much to philosophical texts and who has edited in London a catalogue of about 300 philosophical writings) told me when he showed me the manuscript of a Sankhya-text : “Strange, these Indians always philosophized, and always the wrong way round ! ” This “always the wrong way round” has become proverbial with me. The old Brockhaus delivered a few years ago at Leipzig his inaugural lecture consisting of a survey of the results achieved in the researches on Indian philology, but about philosophy not a word; I thought he had accidentally forgotten it. Therefore : you should be praised for not also having accidentally forgotten it.’

During the following few years, both Nietzsche and Deussen worked at their respective books, the former at Thus Spake Zarathustra, the latter at his System of the Vedanta. And when, in 1883, Deussen sends a copy of his book to his friend, the first part of Thus Spake Zarathustra was already in the press. There is no doubt that Deussen’s book, however defective it may appear to be in the light of modern academic research, opened up new lines of thought, not only as regards Indology, but also Western philosophy. And Nietzsche who was a generous friend, was the first to admit the importance of this book. On the other hand, however, he cannot help pointing out to Deussen the conclusions he himself arrived at during these years of intense intellectual effort. His Zarathustra., in-deed, stands at the opposite pole of human thought, and, although he carefully avoids hurting Deussen, he makes it quite clear to him that the East has lost a good deal of its former glamour. His ‘suspicions’ regarding the world-denying tendencies in Buddhism are slowly coming true. His path lies elsewhere : ‘Much had to accumulate in one man in order to make accessible to us Europeans this doctrine of the Vedanta .. It is with the greatest pleasure that I come to know the classical expression of this to me most foreign thought-pattern : this your book has achieved. In it everything that I have suspected regarding this thought-pattern comes to light in the most naive manner : I read every page with utter “wickedness” ; you could not wish to have a more grateful reader, dear friend It so happens that just now a manifesto of mine is being printed which says with the same eloquence Yes ! where your book says No ! That makes me laugh; but perhaps it pains you, and I have not made up my-mind as vet whether I shall send it to you. In order to write vow. book you could not think about everything in the same manner as I do, and yours had to be written.’

What Nietzsche had begun in his Zarathustra, he completed in his next great book Beyond Good and Evil, extracts of which, referring to India have already been quoted. It is in this book that Nietzsche takes the ultimate plunge beyond the conventional morality of the Philistine and the ‘Buddhist’ ethics of Schopenhauer, beyond Christianity and its doctrine of compassion and love. In his letter to Deussen he calls it a ‘wicked’ book, for to the Philistine and, so he implies, to the Vedantist, anything that is beyond good and evil must appear wicked. ‘As a sign how very much I would like to be once more near you, I have permitted myself to send you my youngest and most wicked child : I hope it will learn near you some “morality” and Vedantic dignity which it so sadly lacks from the paternal side. It is called “Beyond Good and Evil”. Your book has again and again given me the deepest interest and instruction : I wish there existed something equally clear and dialectically elaborate for the Sankhya Philosophy.

One year before final darkness will fall over Nietzsche’s mind, he once more writes to Deussen about his attitude towards India. This is a strangely subdued let-ter indicating that Nietzsche has raised himself up beyond even that ‘wickedness’ of his previous books. Like Goethe he sees in Indological research a potential source of widening and enlarging European consciousness. And although he disagrees as strongly as ever with the philosophy of life as expressed in Hinduism or Buddhism, al-though his ideal of a superman has steadily been growing beyond the confines of ordinary intellectual and moral patterns of existence, he yet accepts the philosophy of India, if not as anything else, at least as a parallel and complement to Western philosophy : ‘For everything that you propose to do, I have, as you know, a deep sympathy. It also belongs to the essential needs of my unprejudiced mind, (my “super-european” eye), that your life and work always reminds me of the only great parallel to our European philosophy. Here in France there still exists complete ignorance regarding the Indian evolution : the followers of A. Comte, for instance, create laws for a necessary historical evolution and sequence of fundamental philosophical differences, in which the Indians are not considered at all, laws which the Indian evolution contradicts. But that Msr. de Roberty does not know.’

The conception of a superman is part and parcel of the Western urge for action and progress; it is the logical result of the dualism in the mind of Europe which began with Schlegel at the beginning of the nineteenth century and ended with Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism. The ponce of Goethe, Hegel, Gobineau, and Schopenhauer towards India, was part of one and the same evolution. For each one of them the discovery of the East constituted a severe test of sensibility. None of them could offer a satisfactory solution: their knowledge of the East only served the purpose of accentuating their intellectual dualism: Schlegel’s late conversion to Roman-Catholicism, Goethe’s ‘fear’ of the formless and irrational, Hegel’s definition of India as a ‘people without history’, Gobineau’s escape into pseudo-racial prejudices, Schopenhauer’s attempt to adapt Buddhism to nineteenth-century purposes of moral revaluation, and finally, Nietzsche’s forceful claim for a life lived on an altogether amoral level, are all expressions of that same discrepancy, so characteristic of nineteenth-century civilization, between thought and action, ideal and practice, principle and realization: Each one of these solutions is either an escape from the very real problems of moral adjustment brought about by the Industrial Revolution and modern power politics, or the affirmation of an ideal of life which is utopian in its essence and hardly anything more than a wish-fulfilment. In Nietzsche we find rep-resented, better than in anyone else, the protest of the man of genius against the gradual mechanization of life, against the predominance of the average and the mediocre in modern society, against the moral values imported either from Judea or from India; the last futile attempt of a great European to solve the spiritual conflict within him.