Indian Background of Nietzchean Thought

published on March 7, 2009




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By M. P. Ajith Kumar*


 Right from the dawn of civilization India
has been at the vanguard of intellectual renaissance, influencing the cultural
and spiritual progress of the world. In fact behind many of the modern concepts
Europe has developed of late, one could discern this intellectual light from
the orient which India
lit up. India’s
versatile influence on the West was immortal, infinite and intellectualizing.
This is how Will Durant, the great Westerner and the most noted
philosopher-Historian, dealt with this aspect:


       Let us remember that… India was the
mother land of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages; that
she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our
mathematics; mother through Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity;
mother through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother
India is in many ways the mother of us all.1


This Indian influence on European thought about which
many renowned scholars like Will Durant waxed eloquent, started from the
earliest stage of the world’s history and many cultural zones receptive to the
high oriental philosophy in general and Indian thought in particular imbibed Indology
to the maximum that they could do wonders in their countries and places thus
far unfamiliar with the most original thoughts as were available from India.
That Indian thoughts very deeply influenced many faculties of knowledge around
the world is attested by the semantic studies in different world languages too.


     Among the
many European nations the most noted beneficiary of Indology was Germany
and the leading among the many German scholars who had heavily drawn upon
Indology was the pioneering European philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche. A
legatee of the gems of thought on universal soul left by Schopenhauer whose
adherence to the Indian idea pertaining to soul and ardour for truth made him
see this soul’s reflection even in his pet poodle whom he named Atma,2 Friederich Nietzsche
was so deeply enamoured of Indian lore that he with his unquenchable thirst for
knowledge and indomitable intellect dived deep into the infinite ocean of the
oriental wisdom, especially the Upanishads.


   Though had
shown much interest in the teachings of Zend
and had written on the most celebrated song of Zarathushtra
“Nietzsche’s ability to transcend logic, his religious ideas and the aphoristic
style of his writings are more traceable to India
than Zoroaster and Persia”3.
That it was more the spiritual tradition of India than any thing else that cast
Nietzschean philosophy is well attested by almost all his writings. Indian
thought that penetrated beyond all, beyond even good and evil which it
considered harmful and went on to select a middle path that lies between the
both had significant bearing on many of the thinking minds the world over. This
idea India
nurtured down the lanes of its tradition had its profound reflections in the
teachings of her ancient philosophers like Sri Krishna and Sri Buddha. They
developed the idea of ‘unattachment’ that lies between attachment and
detachment, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure and finally birth and death. This
is the state of virag (with raga or attachment to nothing) or a yogi who treads the middle path or the madhyamika marga with his balanced
thought and action (samyak samadhi
and samyak karma). This is how a
modern Indian teacher explains it in the light of the Bhagavad Gita:


Good and evil will both have their results,
will produce their karma. Good action will entail upon us good effect; bad
action, bad. But good and bad are both bondages of the soul. The solution
reached in the Gita, in regard to
this bondage-producing nature of work is, that if we do not attach ourselves to
the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul. We shall try
to understand what is meant by this “non-attachment” to work.


He further clarifies:


A golden chain is as much a chain as an
iron one. There is a thorn in my finger, and I use another to take the first
one out; and when I have taken it out, I throw both of them aside; I have no
necessity of keeping the second thorn, because both are thorns after all. So
the bad tendencies are to be counteracted by the good ones, and the bad
impressions on the mind should be removed by the fresh waves of good ones until
all that is evil almost disappears, or is subdued and held in control in a
corner of the mind; but after that the good tendencies have also to be
conquered. Thus the “attached” becomes “unattached”4.


 This in fact is
the state of Samadhi wherein the dhi or intellect is well balanced,
wherein one, totally untouched by externalities, is the master of himself. This
is the state of the Buddha or
according to the Gita of the Yogi or the one endowed with the
‘Wisdom’ which takes one beyond Good and Evil. Thus says the Gita:

Buddhiyukto jahatiha ubhe sukrutadushkrute

Tasmadyogaya yujysva yoga karmasu kausalam.5


(Endowed with this wisdom, one gets rid of both good
and evil; therefore take to Yoga; Yoga is the skill in work.)


The Gita
further explains the nature of the one with well established intellect. “He who
is free from affection everywhere, and who getting whatever good or evil
neither welcomes nor hates them has steady wisdom”, it says. He who is with
well established wisdom is called stitaprajnja.
Thus says the Gita:



Yadasamharate chayam kurmonganiva


prajnja pratishtita


“As the tortoise tucks its feet and head inside the
shell, and you may kill it and break it in pieces, and yet it will not come
out, even so the character of that man who has control over his motives and
organs is unchangeably established”.7


    The narrow
confines of Christianity and the Europe vulgarizing this eastern religion had
greatly ailed Nietzsche and his love for what existed before the Europeans,
finding themselves in identity crisis and cutting new identity for themselves,
destroyed the old cultures which they disparaged pagan often touched a
spiritual height. No wonder this German thinker’s soul yearned to return to the
old moorings wherein man identified himself with the entirety of the universe
and everything sourced off from the springs of truth. “Promise me”, he said
once to his sister

“that when I die only my friends shall
stand about my coffin, and no inquisitive crowd. See that no priest or anyone
else utter falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer protect myself; and
let me descend into my tomb as an honest pagan”.8 Here indeed is
another exhortation from his pagan heart:


Remain loyal to the earth, my brothers,
with all the power of your virtue! Let the overflowing gift of your love and
your knowledge confer the meaning of the earth!9


  Naturally he
sought solutions for the problems confronting him in a vision of elite group
who are beyond good and evil, an aristocracy embodying the noble virtues of an
idealized Indian system. Tawney in The
Philosophy of Nietzsche
describes his infatuation for the Indian systems in
regard to this aspect:


…in case of the unique natures of noble
origin, if by virtue of superior spirituality they should incline to a more
retired and contemplative life, reserving to themselves only the more refined
forms of government (over chosen disciples or members of an order), religion
itself may be used as a means for obtaining peace from the noise and trouble of
managing grosser affairs, 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.10


aristocracy, Nietzsche believed could be reached at only through the path that
goes to the world which is beyond good and evil. Such a man who is free from
both these aspects alone gets Bodhi
or the state of Nirvana or Jivanmukti which according to
philosophical discourse is the state of a living being free from both
attachment and detachment. He is like a zero placed in the balanced position
between the two extremities. With his powers infinite and his capacity to
accommodate everything and all irrespective of any difference, he sees
everything with equanimity and exalted temperament. This is how Nietzsche
speaks about such a state of mind and soul:


…“good” and “bad” is synonymous with the
opposition “noble” and “despicable” – the antithesis “good” and “evil”
originates elsewhere. The noble type of man feels himself to be the evaluator of values, he does not seek the
approval of anyone, he judges that “that which harms me is harmful in itself”,
he knows himself to be someone who, in general, honours things; he creates
values. He honours all that which he knows to be a part of himself…the noble
human being …helps the unfortunate… from an urge emerging from his superfluous
strength. The man who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and how to
remain silent, who enjoys practicing severity and harshness upon himself…11


   This appears
like the expression of another European scientist who saw in the mathematical
symbol of Zero, Nirvana condensed
into a dynamo. Certainly an individual who attained such a highest state of
mind is the most powerful. Living in the world, he would be above it like the
divine. This indeed is nothing but the mind of India which seeks to be
unattached, the mind which expresses itself through different symbols – the
seated Buddha in Samadhi or Sambodhi immersed in his introspective
bliss or the supreme symbol that balances between the two entities of creation
and destruction, the force of preservation represented through Vishnu immersed
in his cosmic sleep or the Yoganidra.
This is the state of the person who identifies everything as a part of himself
or sees all in himself or himself in all. He loves everything because he knows
everything as a part of himself. This idea Nietzsche preached to Europe is
nothing but the idea of universal love embodied in the teachings of the Buddha
which Jesus Christ took centuries ago to Europe
from the East or the idea of cosmic unity and interconnectedness as envisioned
in the Upanishads and the Gita. Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin who
finds traces of the Gathas in the
writings of Nietzsche opines that his work on Zoroaster was more influenced by
Indology than by the Avesta. Armand
Quinot who researched in Nietzschean studies wrote:


On more than one occasion, Zarathustra, the
poetry, and the posthumous fragments call to mind the religious lyric poetry of
Dionysos recollects having been the Indian Bacchus. What his initiates says of
him the devotees of Shiva have frequently said of their God: is he not the
emerald God, the God from whom one cosmic day to another becomes, dies and is
reborn, the God of the orgiastic, the Creator, the Guide, and the Destroyer,
the God who dances and makes the worlds dance ceaselessly from their morning to
their evening?12


Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Manu
which cast its spell on the teachings of Zarathustra, and he
considered almost all ethical systems of the world as mere imitations or
reproductions of it. Just like Schopenhauer, his predecessor, Nietzsche was of
esteemed opinion about the ethical code of Manu whose description of the
practical philosophy of Varnashrama
led him to his ideal of the Will-to-Power
which changed the very destiny of Europe.
Manu’s faith in man as the maker of his future, his affirmative religion, the
religion of his potential strength and heroic calmness that go to make the
superhuman made Nietzsche exhort to closely follow the code of Manu.13
Bowing in veneration to the oriental philosophy and much enamoured of the Manu
Smruthi, Nietzsche opinionates that Manu had


organized the highest possible means of
making life flourish…The Law of Manu [is] an incomparably intellectual and
superior work. It is replete with noble values, it is filled with a feeling of
perfection, with a saying of yea to life; the sun shines upon the whole book… I
know of no book in which so many delicate things are said of women as in the
Law Book of Manu… “The breath of woman”, says Manu on one occasion, “the breast
of a woman, the prayer of a child and the smoke of sacrifice are always pure”.14


      With high
appreciation for the idea of independence the oriental philosophies waxed
eloquent on, Nietzsche abhorred the artificial and enforced disciplines of the
West followed in the name of God and religion and was always enamoured of
“stepping out of the Christian atmosphere of hospitals and poisons” into a more
salubrious, loftier and more spacious world” where one breaths freely.15
He condemns the ‘slave morality’, the Christian meekness, forgiveness, patience
and love as no more than the mimicry of impotent hatred which dares not to be
anything but meek and patient, or seem anything but loving, though it dreams of
heaven and hell.16  He even
went to the extent of exhorting to “close the Bible and open the Codes of Manu”
which according to him contained the lofty sermon on the philosophy of the
eternal freedom. This freedom of the individual-will from all the externalities
and impositions alone could lead to the ultimate perfection of human life,
Nietzsche believed. Therefore he developed the ideas of Superman and Will-to-power.
The Superman is the state of a man
totally salvaged by his own action from the fetters of the mundane existence as
envisioned in the Indian lore while the Will-to-power
is the leonine means to this end.
Thilly, the historian of Western Philosophy thus sums up the Nietzschean ideas:

What men desire ultimately is not
pleasure…Men willingly sacrifice pleasures and incur suffering for the sake of
greater power; and the power which finds expression in creative activity offers
ultimate happiness which all men desire, although it involves a large measure
of pain and discomfort. Happiness – in the sense of that state which is desired
ultimately – does not consist of a preponderance of pleasurable moments which
are free from pain…Pursuit of this happiness involves a high degree of
self-discipline, for we lack great power as long as we are dominated by animal
passions. By sublimating his impulses and employing them creatively, man can
yet raise himself above beasts and attain that unique dignity…Those who attain
this state are Ubermenschen


These Supermen are found everywhere without
differences of cultures, time and places they are born, Nietzsche believed. The
Superman, he says, is above everything and almost divine that he is
uninfluenced by any malice, hatred, jealousy or any such negative or philistine
aspects. He is “like an ocean to be able to receive a river of filth without
being contaminated by it” and “squanders his soul… asks for no thanks and
accepts nothing in return…”18  A great admirer of the laws of Manu,
Nietzsche was to the fairest extent influenced by the Indian law giver’s view
that “to act solely from the desire for reward is not laudable”19 or
“that the knowledge of dharma is
prescribed only for those not given to desire and acquision of wealth”.20
Nietzsche wrote:


…life itself whispered this secret to me: I
am that which must overcome itself over and over again…Life taught me this
once; everlasting good and evil do not exist! From out of themselves they must
overcome themselves – over and over again.21


    The path to
this state of Superman is the Will-to-Power
rather than a mere will to live like anything. It is this Will-to-Power that makes life worthy. “Only where there is life is
there also a will: but not a will to life – rather: will to power”.22  By introducing his ideas of Superman and Will-to-Power, Nietzsche was guiding the modern age once again to
the world’s old moorings, the light from where, he firmly believed, could lead
the entire humanity to a spiritual height. “Good men, in all ages, are those
who plough the old thoughts into the earth, planting them deep down and
nurturing them until they bear fruit – they are the farmers of spirit”.23
Indeed the Nietzschean teachings proved an eye opener to Europe
which grew arrogant of its progress in the world of materialistic science. They
were, as the modern Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo observes, “an attempt to
read profoundly and live by the life-soul of the universe and tended to be
deeply psychological and subjective in their method” and has led to the rise of
a new intuitionalism “laying hands on the sealed doors of the spirit”.24
The Will-to-Power was thus Nietzsche’s
search for the inherent power of spirituality latent in man and the universe.
In some circumstances it may appear that the whole aim of humanity is a
‘will-to-live’. But this is not so. What man desires or should desire is not
the mere preservation, but an enhancement of his state of being i.e. the
greater power. The triumph in competition which was a prominent element in
Greek education and culture, the artistic creation, the philosopher’s
intellectual conquest of the cosmos or the ascetic’s self-conque

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