Both Hinduism and Buddhism (see Nietzsche and Buddhism) are of interest to Nietzsche not in themselves, but as alternative positions from which to continue his attack on Christianity. He declared that “the critic of Christianity is profoundly grateful to the students of India” for making Buddhism available as a religion to compare with Christianity.
In his day, there was considerable academic and popular interest in India and the religion of the majority of its inhabitants.
In the Twilight of the Idols and the Antichrist, Nietzsche uses the term chandala, which he borrowed from the Indian caste system, where a chandala is a member of the lowest social class. He compared the caste system as an example of a “breeding morality”, as opposed to the Christian version of slave morality.
To be clear, Nietzsche does not like either morality. However, he favours the chandala morality in a relative sense to the morality of Judeo-Christianity.
This interpretation relied on a translation of the Laws of Manu, an ancient Sanskrit text, which was a relatively well-known text in 19th century Europe. He read Louis Jacolliot’s French translation, who was a major populariser of Hinduism, although critics later called him an India-fanatic and that in his works romanticism often predominates over scientific truth, so that he must be considered as a very brilliant vulgariser rather than a scholar.
Nietzsche refers to Jacolliot by name in one of his notebooks, and sometimes gives page numbers with the extracts that he translates into German. No other Indian text excited Nietzsche in this way. This by itself, is astonishing, but no less remarkable are his previous knowledge of Hinduism and India.
Nietzsche wrote to Heinrich Köselitz, who served as the editor of Nietzsche’s writings and with whom he had a long-time friendship, about his discovery:
“I owe to these last weeks a very important lesson: I found Manu’s book of laws in a French translation […] This absolutely Aryan work, a priestly codex of morality based on the Vedas, on the idea of caste and very ancient tradition supplements my views on religion in the most remarkable way. I confess to having the impression that everything else that we have by the way of moral lawgiving seems to me an imitation and even a caricature of it […] even Plato seems to me in all main points simply to have been well instructed by a Brahmin…”
Schopenhauer, who quotes the Manu twice in his book The World as Will and Representation, refers to it as “the oldest of all the codes of law.” His enthusiasm was widely shared.
It may be assumed that Nietzsche felt a similar gratitude in respect of the availability of Hinduism. Although he seldom referred to it, nor did he use the word Hinduism, speaking rather of Brahmanism, the Vedanta or Indian philosophy in general. The only extensive Indian text he read was the Laws of Manu, and with much enthusiasm. It is one of the books he possessed in his extensive private library.
However, Nietzsche disliked the ancient Sanskrit play Shakuntala, a work that took educated Europe by storm, and was praised by Goethe, the most famous literary figure in Europe, and who Nietzsche himself ranked among the greatest human beings that have ever lived.
In Nietzsche’s work of dramatic theory, the Birth of Tragedy, he does not even refer to this play. This might be a matter of personal taste, but also shows a mind closed to India, since it was thought to be the oldest of all dramatic forms and was quite popular in the day.
On the other hand, Nietzsche uses a Vedic hymn (the oldest Sanskrit texts and the most venerated) as a motto for his book Daybreak, the least studied of his works.
“There are many dawns which have yet to shed their light”
In one of the book’s passages he wrote:
“For those Brahmins believed, firstly that the priests were more powerful than the gods, and secondly that the power of priests resided in observances: which is why their poets never wearied of celebrating the observances (prayers, ceremonies, sacrifices, hymns, verses) as the real givers of all good things.”
Nietzsche takes this superiority of men over gods as a goal to be imitated:
“let us first of all see to it that Europe overtakes what was done several thousands of years ago in India, among the nation of thinkers, in accordance with the commandments of reason!”
However, Nietzsche’s strongest connection with Hinduism and India comes from his friendship with Paul Deussen, the great European expert on the Vedanta, who was also a friend of Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the western world.
In a letter to Paul Deussen, Nietzsche writes:
“I have, as you know, a profound sympathy with everything that you have in mind to undertake. And it belongs to the most essential fostering of my freedom from my prejudice (my “trans-European eye”) that your existence and work remind me again and again of the one great parallel to our European philosophy…”
He did indeed possess a “trans-European eye”, often distancing himself from his contemporary situation in order to better understand the phenomenon of European modernity. And yet there does appear in the unpublished notes from 1884 the following fascinating resolution: “I must learn to think more orientally about philosophy and knowledge. Oriental overview of Europe.”
In Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, he mentions the Upanishads or the “Eternal Order”, which are the Vedic Sanskrit texts that are still revered in Hinduism and he also refers to the translated works of his friend Paul Deussen on the Brahma Sutras, which summarises the philosophical and spiritual ideas in the Upanishads. The concepts of Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (soul or self) being the central ideas, the thematic focus being to “know that you are the Atman.”
An important departure from Buddhism, where there is no permanent self or soul in living beings.
The Veda states that one should liberate oneself from the illusion of individuality and recognise that one is the atman. This is saying exactly the same thing that Nietzsche wants: the man in us is something to be overcome and strive for the figure of the Ubermensch.
Schopenhauer also gives a striking anticipation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch by postulating a man “who found satisfaction in life and took perfect delight in it; who desired, in spite of calm deliberation, that the course of his life as he had hitherto experienced it should be of endless duration or of constant recurrence […] whose courage to face life was so great that, in return for life’s pleasures, he would willingly and gladly put up with all the hardships and miseries to which it is subject.”
Nonetheless, Schopenhauer preferred the man who understood the truth of the Upanishads:
“He knows that he himself is that will of which the whole world is the objectification or copy, to which therefore life and also the present always remains certain and sure. The present is the only real form of the will. Therefore, no endless past or future in which he will not exist can frighten him, for he regards these as an empty mirage and the web of Maya.”
Schopenhauer then declares that in the Bhagavad Gita, literally “The Song of God”, that “Krishna puts his young pupil Arjuna in this position.”
However, Nietzsche ignores this, he ignores the Bhagavad Gita entirely, for he makes his own way.
Schopenhauer makes an intriguing reference to Shiva in conjunction with Dionysus in the first volume of The World as Will and Representation:
“Birth and death belong equally to life […] The wisest of all mythologies, the Indian, expresses this by giving to the very god who symbolises destruction and death […] to Shiva as an attribute not only the necklace of skulls, but also the lingam, that symbol of generation which appears to be the counterpart of death. […] It was precisely the same sentiment that prompted the Greeks and Romans to adorn the costly sarcophagi, just as we still see them, with feasts, dances, marriages, hunts […] that is with presentations of life’s most powerful urge…”
Nietzsche’s many references to dance in Thus Spoke Zarathustra have often made subsequent readers think of Dancing Shiva. There are several points of convergence between Shiva and Nietzsche/Dionysus/Zarathustra. Shiva the archetype of the Indian wandering ascetic, whose home is the Himalayas, Shiva as the yogi and the wild dancer, Shiva as a resemblance to Dionysus, and so on.
In the end of Daybreak, he states:
“Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India – but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or?”
However, it seems that the experience of Nietzsche’s India – could’ve been the other India for which he set at the end of Daybreak; an India where no one lived but Nietzsche.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a thought-provoking statement that Nietzsche made in 1876:
“I imagine future thinkers in whom European-American indefatigability is combined with the hundredfold-inherited contemplativeness of the Asians: such a combination will bring the riddle of the world to a solution.”
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Eastern Philosophy and Nietzsche | Buddhism and Hinduism
Although Nietzsche considers Eastern philosophy as nihilistic (wrongly), he does indicate their profundity. It seems that he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly.