Europe Looks At India – The Vision

While the two Frenchmen, the sceptic ‘and the priest, laboriously collected materials for their books on India, the one stressing the historical tendencies that manifested themselves in contemporary India, the other insisting on the social and religious forces that were visible to the untrained European eye, a small number of Englishmen living in India started their great work of translation from the classical literatures of India and of expounding whatever they understood of Indian philosophy. For some undoubtedly it was no more than a pastime; for some others, however, the result of a genuine literary interest. The foundation had been prepared by missionaries such as Abraham Roger, from Paliacatta, North of Madras, who translated Indian texts directly from the original into Dutch, published in 1630 under the title ‘Open Door to the Hidden Paganism’, or by Civil Servants such as Holwell whom we have already mentioned in connexion with Voltaire. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, it was no longer individual effort and haphazard initiative that opened the eyes of the West to the ‘hidden’ treasures of Indian literature and philosophy, but the simultaneous and systematic endeavour of a number of English administrators in India who unconsciously paved the way for that truly amazing revival of Indian learning in Europe and especially in Germany. There is Charles Wilkins, the translator of the Bhagavad-Gita, Sir Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the first systematic expounder of Indian philosophy, and, lastly, Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal who translated Shakuntala (1789), the Gita Govinda, and Manu’s law-books into English; three years later in 1791, Georg Forster translated Shakuntala into German and thereby made it accessible to the new generation of writers and poets in Germany, among them Herder and Goethe. Most of Jones’ treatises on India were available in German translation in the years 17951. His translation of Manu’s Law Book had also been rendered into German already in 1797. The Vedas, however, and the entire literature of Buddhism was unknown in Europe till 1830. In passing it may also be noted that Friedrich Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Indology became largely a province of German scholarship.

We are not concerned here with assessing their contribution to the study and knowledge of Indian civilization.

What strikes us most of all today is the fact that at the same time as the Germans ‘discovered’ their own language and the propensities and idiosyncrasies of their own civilization, they should also have welcomed so enthusiastically an alien literature, a foreign way of thinking and conduct. The usual explanation we are offered is that there exists some kind of mysterious affinity between the German and the Indian mind, an affinity which, as a rule, is thought to consist in a common tendency towards contemplation and abstract speculation as well as in an inclination towards pantheism. Leopold von Schroeder, an eminent scholar, for instance, says : ‘The Indians are the nation of romanticists of antiquity: The Germans are the Romanticists of modern times.’* Schroeder considers the pre-occupation with the supernatural, the formlessness of Indian philosophy and art, the dreamlike love of nature, the caste system, asceticism and the solitude of the saint, to be both romantic and medieval. And he concludes that all the ‘romantic’ minds of the West turn towards India because of that deeply-rooted similarity between romanticism in Europe, which is essentially German, and what he considers to be romanticism in India. Professor Winternitz even goes a step further: ‘It is not only German poets,’ he says, ‘who have sung of “Weltschmerz” (World-sorrow). “Weltschmerz” is also the basic idea upon which the doctrine of Buddha is built up and more than one Indian poet has lamented the suffering and woe of the world, the transitoriness and the vanity of all earthly things which reminds us forcibly of our great poet of “Weltschmerz”, Nikolaus Lenau. And when Heine says:

“Sweet is sleep, but death is better,

Best of all is it never to be born . ”

he expresses the same idea as those Indian philosophers, who aspire to nothing more ardently than to that death after which there is no further rebirth. Again sentimentality and feeling for Nature are the common property of German and Indian poetry, whilst they are foreign, say, to Hebrew or Greek poetry … Mention has already been made of the tendency of the Indians to work out scientific systems; and we are justified in saying that the Indians were the nation of scholars of antiquity, just as the Germans are the nation of scholars of today.’

To put forward generalizations such as the ones Schroeder and Professor Winternitz indulge in, is extremely misleading. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century the literatures of Greece and Rome had been the sole powerful influence in Western civilization, including Germany; as a matter of fact, Germany had been more widely exposed to foreign influences, both by her geographical position and her lack of political unity, than any other country in Europe. Till the end of the eighteenth century French was the spoken and written language of the educated classes in Germany, while German was looked down upon as common and vulgar. The Prussian king Frederick the Great wrote and spoke only in French, cultivated the friendship of Voltaire, and openly ridiculed the first play of Goethe which was written in German and in the Shakespearean manner. It was only after the wars of liberation and especially after Napoleon that the new German middle classes became aware of the existence of their own language and civilization. And while writers such as Lessing, the young Goethe, Herder, and others, vigorously opposed the French influence the decaying classicism of pre-revolutionary days, eagerly welcomed the translations from Indian literature, thereby compensating their own. loss of French culture. Instead of the art and poetry of Versailles, we find them now responding to Shakuntala and Hindu mysticism. From a literary point of view it is undoubtedly true that the tendency of German romanticism towards the middle-ages helped them, in a manner of speaking, to appreciate Indian civilization and religion. But mere literary research hardly explains anything at all, unless we also remember that this literary re-orientation also coincided with the creation of a new social structure in Germany, and that instead of the former feudal aristocracy we are now con-fronted by a youthful and vigorous middle-class in rebellion against both cultural and political domination from outside. Any attempt to abolish the hateful French influence had necessarily to lead to a revaluation of cultural standards. And having only the middle ages to lean upon for since the Thirty-years’ War Germany had hardly produced any art or poetry of any outstanding merit, the new writers of Germany turned with a common enthusiasm both towards medievalism and Indology. Considering this historical context, to speak of affinities between the German and the Indian mind, seems rather far-fetched. The poem by Heine, quoted by Professor Winternitz, has nothing specifically Indian. And the fact that Heine was a Jew by race slightly complicates the matter. Similar passages, ,however, could easily be culled from English literature, from Shakespeare to Rossetti, without thereby inferring any spiritual similarity between the Indian and the English mind. And as regards the ‘World sorrow’ so largely advertised by German literary critics, it is common enough in all poetry, be it Chinese, or Hebrew, or Russian. Nor is it entirely absent from Greek poetry either. If at all we can speak of an affinity, it is because Indian literature and philosophy entered at the right psychological moment into the cultural body of Germany; for at the same time as the German middle classes consciously began rejecting the Latin influence, as part of their cultural and social revolt against oppression of any kind, they also discovered India which throughout the ‘romantic’ period seemed to them the embodiment of freedom, justice, and natural simplicity.

Shakespeare on the one hand, and Indian literature on the other, were the two factors that mainly inspired the German romantic movement. Both were discovered at almost the same time. It is no accident either that the brother of Friedrich Schlegel, who wrote the first systematic Indological study in Germany, should have given the most sensitive and the most perfect translation of Many of these German writers identified their own romantic dreams ‘with- What they considered to be India. They were hardly at all concerned with ‘reality’. Macpherson’s forgery and the translation of Shakuntala were accepted with an equally eager enthusiasm. The young Goethe, for instance, carried his Ossian about with him wherever he went, which did not prevent him from welcoming the first translation of Shakuntala in a memorable stanza. Anything that pointed a way out of the cultural oppression of France was called- ‘romantic’s- Shakespeare and Ossian, the folk-songs of primitive times, the Christian saints of the middle ages, the art and literature of ancient India, all these were equally ‘romantic’. Thus we are not surprised to hear Friedrich Schlegel exclaim : ‘In the East we must look for the highest form of Romanticism:* Indeed, it was in India that the Roman-tics found that dynamic and synthetic approach to life which they felt was lacking in the formalism and artificial polish of Latin civilization. Poetry and philosophy, they learned from India. are one and the same thing: ‘To separate them is an altogether subjective and purely European conception’ says Friedrich Schlegel.T Apart from philosophy and literature, the religion of India opened the eves of the German romantics to a less dogmatic and narrow-minded form of belief than could be found in the West. Throughout the nineteenth century we shall come across religious criticism animated and inspired by the discovery of India’s polytheistic creed. Here they found a simplicity of faith which the West had lost long ago. ‘If one considers’, says Schlegel, ‘the superior concention which is at the basis of the truly universal Indian culture and which, itself divine, knows how to embrace in its universality everything that is divine without distinction, then, what we in Europe call religion or what we used to call such, no longer seems to deserve that name. And one would like to advise everyone who wants to see religion, he should, just as one goes to Italy to study art, go to India for that purpose. where he may ‘ be certain to find at least fragments for which he will surely look in vain in Europe.

In Friedrich Schlegel, however, we find more than the purely visionary and romantic attitude towards India. He like many of his contemporaries belongs to a group of disillusioned scholars and poets, who after the first youthful enthusiasm for all things Indian realized the fundamental conflict which from now on will characterize the attitude of many a Western intellectual towards India. For as long as India remained a wish-fulfilment only, the ‘reality’ of human life was bound to des-troy it sooner or later. Reason and commonsense always seemed to interfere; the result was a dualism in the mind of more than one great Romantic, the realization of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Whenever they came to know what the ‘real’ India was like, their reason revolted, and scepticism took the place of their former enthusiasm. After having written his book on ‘The Language and ‘Wisdom of the Indians’, Schlegel went over to the Roman Catholic Church, and twenty years after the first appearance of his book he exclaims : ‘As a whole, the occidental mind guards itself against all the abuses of mysticism by its nature of moderation and synthesis, its more varied intellectual culture, and most of all by the purer light of truth perceived in its entirety, a mysticism which in India, not only theoretically but also even in practice and application, is led to extremes that transcend all the limits of human knowledge, and even by far surpasses the- limits of all possibility or what one considers to be possible.

The occidental mind revolted more than once in the nineteenth century, against the ‘excesses’ of Eastern religious sensibility. Such a reaction was both intellectually and politically inevitable. For just as the late romantics ceased to be inspired by the exploits of the French Revolution and quickly forgot the enthusiasm of their youth for either literary or social reform, in the same manner many of them turned away from India and took refuge in a purely medieval conception of life (the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) or in the political reaction that set in all over Europe after the downfall of Napoleon. On the one hand, we shall find them preoccupied with the patriotic themes of nationalistic revival, on the other, with what in literary history we are accustomed to call the Victorian attitude to life. the romanticism of scientific progress and the liberalism of humanitarian advancement. That is the reason why we have devoted so much mace to a discussion of Friedrich Schlegel. In him indeed, we find reflected the split of sensibility better than in any other contemporary writer, except perhaps Goethe. The response of the German mind to India, from the be inning of the nineteenth century on-wards, was coloured by that. same conflict and dualism. It is a peculiar form of twentieth-century wish-fulfilment, particularly in India, which deceives itself into believing that Germany at all times, responded wholeheartedly to the ‘appeal of the East.

Before discussing Goethe himself, let us look at some other romantics in Germany. Most of them were less aware of this conflict. They indeed responded to India spontaneously and as part of their longing to es-cape from the intellectual and material unrest of their own time. Novalis, one of the greatest poets Germany ever produced, a contemporary of Schlegel and Goethe, sees in India the – primitive simplicity of innocence : ‘In India human beings still slumber and their sacred dream is a garden surrounded by lakes made of milk and sugar.. ‘ and reacting, as all the Romantics did, against the rationalism of the preceding age, Novalis exclaims: ‘Like a beautified India, poetry, purer and more colourful, stands Opposed to the cold and deadening mountains of philistine reason. In order to make India, in the Middle of the globe, so’ wain and wonderful, there must exist all around the inhospitability of a cold and sterile sea, dead rocks, mist instead of a starry sky, and a never-ending night Heinrich Heine, in one of his stories, gives vent to his longing for an Eastern environment and faithftilly describes a landscape and a setting which alone would Make him happy. It is supposed to be India or rather the India of his dream and imagination ‘and in the glass I saw the dear motherland, the blue and, sacred Ganges, the eternally shining Himalayas, the gigantic forests of Banjan trees on whose wide shadowy paths quietly walk wise elephants and white pilgrims, strangely dreamy flowers looked at me, golden Wonder birds soared wild and secretly warned me, the flickering rays of the sun and the grotesque sounds of laughing monkeys lovingly teased me, from far away Pagodas resounded the pious prayer of priests, and in between one could hear the melting sorrowful voice of the Sultana of Delhi.

Herder who in more than one sense was the intellectual guide of Goethe’s adolescence and early manhood belongs to the same class of German writers as Novalis and Heine, if we judge him by his attitude to-, wards India. In his encyclopaedic work Also a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Mankind India is mentioned more than once. We find, side by side, his admiration for the ‘simplicity’ and the childlike innocence of the Indians, on the one hand, and his con-tempt for the greed and corruption of the Europeans whose main concern with India seems to be economic exploitation, on the other. Voltaire’s attitude, as we have seen, was based on very similar considerations; only it was more detached and impersonal, while Herder looks upon the problem as an intensely personal issue affecting the very essence of European culture. Indeed, no writer between Voltaire and Goethe could quite detach himself from personal considerations with regard to India. For Herder, as for all the other Romantics, thé emotional discovery of India mattered more than intellectual ratiocination. ‘Such a fortunate people,’ he exclaims, ‘would have been happy, if it could have lived -separated from the conquerors on a solitary island ; but living as you do at the foot of the mountains on which reside human beasts of prey, the warlike Mongols, and near the shore rich in inlets where the greedily cunning Europeans land, you, poor Indians, would have lost sooner or later your peaceful way of life: And with a consistency peculiar to the visionary character of the romantic movement, Herder draws his conclusions as regards the nature of Western civilization; only in the far away countries of the East can still be found the primeval innocence of man. And what they all so ardently longed for Was achieved, though only, in a dream : in India they had rediscovered the human soul. And their wish-fulfilment made them identify the soul of man with nature. The literature of India expressed that same identity which alone, according to them, could save civilization from decay.


We have already mentioned Goethe more than once. His evolution is in many ways similar to that of Schlegel. Perhaps the main difference between his response and that of the other German Romantics consists in the fact that by the time Indian literature and philosophy had become known to him, he had already achieved a considerable degree of intellectual maturity and broadmindedness. We are not surprised, therefore, to hear him welcome the East, not as an escape from Western unrest and futility, but rather as a new source of intellectual inspiration which might enlarge, but certainly not replace, the European consciousness. Three years after the publication of Schlegel’s book, Goethe writes in a letter to Count Uvarov, one of the then leaders of Indology in Russia: ‘Although I could, for instance, only give a casual glance at Indian literature, my early love for. the Vedas was again and again nourished on the contributions of Sonnerat, the studious efforts of Jones, the translations of Shakuntala and the Gitagovinda; and I was tempted to use some legends, just as I formerly intended to adapt the Vedas; such an adaptation might have been of little value from the point of view of literary criticism, but at least it would have served the purpose of vivifying among many people the attitude of mind inherent in this significant and amiable tradition … Thus an altogether new world is bound to be born where we can-live in greater plenitude, and where the peculiarities of our mind will be fortified and will be refreshed for new activity.’

The ‘personality of Goethe, however, is probably the most representative instance of this split of Western consciousness which we have already observed in the case of Schlegel.- Due to some kind of wish-fulfilment, scholars have almost always emphasized Goethe’s early enthusiasm for Shakuntala, his feeble attempts to study the Gita and to master the Devanagari script; a number of poems are also mentioned where an Indian influence is evident. But considered as part of Goethe’s life work, his-interest-in and preoccupation with things Indian form an infinitely small part indeed. If at all we can speak of an Eastern influence in Goethe’s life, then it was Persia rather than India that provide him with a pattern of life to which he responded immediately and unhesitatingly. All through his life he felt more attracted to Hafiz than to Indian philosophy and art. Hafiz’s conception of and attitude to life were simpler, more ‘homely’, More appealing to the senses than the vast and mysterious cosmogony of ancient India.

Let us remember that Goethe also was a child of his century: and the event that had overshadowed everything else during his lifetime was the French Revolution. It provided the writers and poets at that tin* e with a new social awareness which was not without some influence on their attitude towards India. For apart from philosophy and religion they found in India a structure of society consisting of a rigid separation of castes which could not but strike them as ‘inhuman’ and opposed to the principles of equality and justice. And while writers before the Revolution (for instance the Abbe Dubois, as we have seen) had nothing but praise for the caste system, Goethe and many others with him rejected it as unjust and irrational. Two plays, both entitled ‘The Paria’ (The Untouchable) appeared in the first half of the century, one in France by Casimir Delavigne and another in Germany by Michael Beer. The latter was staged at Weimar by Goethe himself who also wrote an introduction to it. A few years latter, he himself wrote his last great ballad ‘The Paria'; he had found the plot in Sonnerat’s book. And out of Indian mythology Goethe creates a new conception of man and invests him with a dignity which almost borders on the divine.

It is especially in the later part of his life that Goethe turns his back on India. Indeed, there is nothing surprising in that: for he did not only reject all Indian influences at that time, but also the Romanticism of his youth, his pre-occupations with medieval forms of life, and the symbolism of the recent Germanic revival in literature. Ancient Greece and the Italy of the Renaissance fascinated him more and more, and, quite naturally, he found it impossible to -reconcile the rational form of the Mediterranean civilization with the formlessness and exotic appeal of the East: ‘I have by no means an aversion to things Indian,’ he writes to his friend Humboldt on October 22, 1826, ‘but I am afraid of them, for they draw my imagination into the formless and the diffuse, against which I have to guard myself more than ever before .’ The same argument Goethe also applies to the plastic arts. He is overcome by the same ‘fear’, when he compares ancient Greek sculpture, its love for the beautiful and proportionate human form, with the frightening abstractions of Indian sculpture : ‘Let me confess,’ he says, ‘that we who read Homer as our breviary and who dedicate ourselves with heart and soul to Greek sculpture as the most perfect incarnation of God on earth, that we, I say, enter with a kind of uneasy fear those limitless spaces where monsters obtrude themselves upon us and deformed shapes soar away and disappear.’

Goethe’s attitude towards India is consistent from the very beginning. He has taken from India what seemed to him profitable for his own’ and his. country’s intellectual development. He never failed to acknowledge the tremendous stimulus of Indian thought on Western civilization. But he also rejects that influence when it threatens to overcome the equilibrium and stability of his mind. One of his last statements on Indian philosophy is, perhaps, not without significance : for he discovers there an element alien to the dynamic western urge for action and progress the indifference of old age : ‘This Indian philosophy has, if the information of the Englishman [probably Colebrooke is meant] is correct, nothing foreign for us; rather periods through which we ourselves pass, are repeated there. We are sensualists as long as we are children; Idealists when we love and when we invest the object of our love with virtues which are not really there at all. Love wavers, we doubt fidelity and are sceptics before we know it. The rest is indifference, we let it go as it will, and end with quietism just as Indian philosophy.

Goethe was not alone in his disillusionment. A whole generation of writers. and thinkers was engulfed by that same scepticism with regard to India. They were disinclined to believe the enthusiastic accounts of the romantics and, though they never admitted their own ignorance with regard to India, they started applying their western preconceptions and ideologies to a civilization of which they knew next to nothing. And while Goethe always approached India from his own personal angle of vision, from the context of his own intellectual evolution, others applied the abstract principles of pedantic scholar-ship to a land the history of which was hardly known to them at all.

Before, however, dealing with the ‘reaction’ on the Continent let us look at the country where Indology as a science first originated. For we must not forget that the Indian revival on the Continent was made possible only by the translation from Indian languages, and especially from the Sanskrit, made by Englishmen living in India. We shall not be far wrong, if we assume that the close contact between India and England deter-mined the response of English writers to Indian literature, philosophy, and religion, and that, in some respects at least, India mattered to the average Englishman more than to the average German or Frenchman. And the continental response which had been coloured by strong emotional and religious forces, will be replaced in England by no less strong moral and political considerations. For there is no doubt that the response of a people to an alien country is very largely determined by material, as much as by spiritual, conflicts. Germany responded ‘spiritually’, because she had no material interests in India. Her dream and wish-fulfilment were, to a considerable degree, a compensation for her political and economic backwardness. We shall find very little of this ‘dream’ in the English response to India. It was more matter-of-fact, less emotional, but also less intellectual. And the best among Englishmen saw in India during the hundred and fifty years that will form the subject-matter of our next chapter, a moral challenge, indeed a challenge to their ‘spiritual’ complacency and political consciousness.