The influence of the Vedanta in this work of Friedrich Nietzsche is clearly visible.
Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at:
The first part in this series takes a closer look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s seminal work Thus Spoke Zarathustra from an essentially Indic perspective. What follows in each part of this series is a result of combining close reading of the text (as available in R.J. Hollingdale’s English translation) with an interpretative dialectic of Vedanta. It is the intent of the author to encourage the reader to consciously apply this perspective, the ancient contours of which are only recently being reconstructed by the works of many Indic scholars, as and when she engages herself with the original texts mentioned herein. Throughout this exercise, the term ‘modern’ has been used in the context of the times contemporary with Nietzsche’s; unless, of course, specified otherwise.
Nietzsche's philosophical outlook
Nietzsche, the consummate philosopher by both training and profession, transforms into a consummate poet – for it is only a poet who can speak so effortlessly about the twilight zone of man’s understanding as he does – in order to express the greatest wisdom that man can stumble upon while traversing the rocky terrains of his own Being (or Sein, in German). It is therefore, little wonder that Martin Heidegger, whose Being and Time (originally Sein und Zeit) would revolutionize the way in which mainstream Western Philosophy had been dealing with consciousness until that time, had followed in the footsteps of his giant predecessor merely decades after Nietzsche brought the term Sein/Being into the Western philosophical discourse. Indeed this ‘track II’ in Western philosophical thinking goes back at least one more generation when another German, Arthur Schopenhauer tried to orient the trend of philosophical thinking in his time towards the Vedantic thought that had recently arrived in Europe from India, thanks to the British East India Company and the many maverick translators in its employment. However, nobody took old man Schopenhauer seriously; most people from within the elite circles of Continental Philosophy kept either ignoring or belittling his works till as late as mid-twentieth century (Bertrand Russell even goes so far as to ridicule him in his History of Western Philosophy, presenting only a caricature of the German stalwart’s life and thoughts in the meagre two pages Russell allotted to him). But the sparks of Vedanta, emitting from Schopenhauer’s synthesis of the Eastern and the Western metaphysics, had already ignited the minds of a couple of young, sharp German youths like Paul Deussen (who pulled off the first major systematic philosophical study of the Upanishads in all of Europe; vide The Philosophy of the Upanishads, Deussen, 1908), and the author of the text that this article speaks of: Friedrich Nietzsche.
The uncanny ability of a philosopher speaking in the language of his alleged counterpart, the poet, is a rare feat. Nietzsche has achieved this in the most brilliant manner perhaps in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I say ‘perhaps’ because I am not as big a fan of his other works as I am of Thus Spoke...and hence there is a risk that I may be biased towards the present text. That uncanny ability is a rare talent found in Nietzsche: one which reminds the reader of Sant Kabirdas. By doing this he also transcends the proverbial dichotomy of poets/philosophers who are supposed to complement each other. Through highly creative wordplay and neologisms, Nietzsche knits together a narrative that gradually unfolds the true nature of mankind and its dwelling: the world. The nature of the work is more evocative than didactic, although Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is presented as a pukka teacher, an ascetic guru, who travels from town to town, through dreadful forests and treacherous mountains in search of those who are ready for the wisdom he has to offer. The language here is highly metaphoric, sometimes turning everyday words on their head to make them invoke potently metaphysical meanings. The reader, at first go, feels dizzy – and somewhat confused – but an effortless persistence assists her, coming out of the mysterious tone of the narration. Sant Kabirdas’s linguistic construct ulatbaansi creates a similar effect – that of a vaguely perceptible yet infallible truth slowly emerging out of a mist of apparently contradictory statements – in the mind of the listener/reader of his doha-s and ballads. Such language, employed by poet-philosophers (or philosopher-poets) like Kabir and Nietzsche seems to be significantly concordant with the yearning of the human soul.
Here it is necessary to issue a disclaimer on the usage of the word ‘philosophy’ and its derivatives throughout this article. This calls for a short aside to our main discussion, and I will pray for the reader’s indulgence for a very brief comparative analysis of the individual scopes of philosophy and darśana. Whenever we are referring to Sant Kabirdas, we are referring to a system of knowing and seeking that prevails in India and that goes back centuries via his guru Ramananda, who was influenced by Nathapanthi yogis and Ramanujacharya’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. Now, both yoga and Vedanta categorically fall under the six schools of darśana. Etymologically, philosophy is ‘love of wisdom’ and darśana is seeing (or rather, experiencing, in a broader sense of the term). In his introduction to A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, Professor Chandradhar Sharma states:
Western philosophy has remained more or less true to the etymological meaning of ‘philosophy’, in being essentially an intellectual quest for truth. Indian Philosophy has been, however, intensely spiritual and has always emphasized the need of practical realization of truth. The word ‘darshana’ means ‘vision’ and also the ‘instrument of vision’. It stands for the direct, immediate and intuitive vision of Reality, the actual perception of Truth, and also includes the means which led to this realization. ‘See the Self’ (ātmā vā are draṣṭavyaḥ) is the keynote of all schools of Indian Philosophy.
From there Sharma goes on to infer “this is the reason why most of the schools of Indian Philosophy are also religious sects”, which is again a problematic statement because it plays up to the power dynamics embedded in the act of translating Sanskrit texts (or other Indian language texts) into English. The word that Sharma probably had in mind while writing that statement is the Sanskrit word ‘sampradāya’ which has a very different concept from the English ‘sect’, which immediately evokes the word ‘sectarian’ and a whole baggage of such similar negative connotations in its wake. The word sampradāya, on the other hand, is derived by adding two different prefixes to the root ‘dā’ which is used to denote ‘giving’. After prefixing the root consecutively by ‘pra’ and ‘saṁ’, and then declining it to the appropriate case, the derivative coinage stands for a tradition of ‘giving (something) special in its totality’. That special something is the first-hand knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman), whose seed is given or passed on (through special rituals like mantra-dīkṣā) to the next generation of worthy receiver(s) by an enlightened Guru or ācārya. The use of the word ‘religious’ is also problematic, since religion entails an element of faith, whereas to be in a sampradāya is more like following a specific tried and tested methodology. Of course, religion and faith can be sublime, but that alone cannot justify the substitution of sampradāya with ‘religious sect’. Therefore, we must see to it that our understanding of the word ‘philosophy’, when applied in the Indian context, stays informed and nuanced so as to include all the complexities of using English translation of the non-translatable.
Nietzsche makes his Zarathustra start the journey with a monologue directed at the otherwise mute sun. Remember, it is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that we are dealing with here, the protagonist of his text. There is strong reason that we may want to correlate this textual entity with Atharvan Zarathustra, the founder of a spiritual movement in ancient Persia that gradually snowballed into Zoroastrianism, but at the same time we must take caution so as not to completely identify one with the other. In any case, I am no expert of the Avestan religion of ancient Persia; and so for safety’s sake I will simply stick to the practice of referring to this entity as “Nietzsche’s Zarathutsra”.
So, at the very beginning of the text, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra steps out of his cave abode in the mountains, where he had spent ten years in solitude, and says this to the rising sun:
Great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine! [...] Behold! I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it. I should like to give it away and distribute it, until the wise among men have again become happy in their folly and the poor happy in their wealth.
Notice the reverence that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra displays towards the sun, which is the common archetypal representation of Godhead across several Indo-European religions, including in Zoroastrianism (Mithra) and in Hinduism (Svastika). He prays to the sun in the following manner: “So bless me then, tranquil eye, that can behold without envy even an excessive happiness”. Once again, the fervour of his reverence becomes apparent. It is like the maṅgalācaraṇa uttered at the very beginning of each Upanishad, and the informed reader is especially reminded of one specific maṅgalācaraṇa set at the beginning of the Taittirīyopaniṣad, where the utterance “śaṁ no bhavatu aryamā” (may Aryaman be propitious to us) occurs. That utterance has a lot in common with “so bless me, tranquil eye…” (which is also significantly placed right in the beginning of the text), for in the Vedic pantheon, Aryamā “is the presiding deity of the sun as well as of the eyes” (Sharvananda 1921:5). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra echoes the prayer of the Upanishadic rishi in both intent and expression, and therefore, the overlapping of Nietzsche’s poetic diction and the Upanishadic vocabulary becomes doubly significant. Both are seeking blessings from the loving Godhead as symbolized in the life-sustaining star. In addition, Nietzsche’s phrasing qualifies the sun as something that watches over the whole world, with a “tranquil” eye. Here Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is extolling an equanimous, “superabundant”, friendly figure who is astonishingly close to the Supreme Godhead of the Vedas. The omniscience that is being alluded to the “great star” here, is in full accordance with the consistent Vedic projection of the sun as an omniscient, omnipresent god. In this connection, one may refer to the 36th hymn from the 10th Book of the Rig Veda, where one mantra goes like this:
savitā paścātāt savitā purastāt savitottarāttātsavitādharāttāt |
savitā naḥsuvatu sarvatātiṃ savitā norāsatāṃ dīrghamayuḥ ||
Which is an invocation of an all-round protection sought from the sun, implying its omnipresence as well as omniscience.
The next thing that we need to observe in the praying line quoted above is Nietzsche’s hint towards his Zarathustra’s ambition of restoring equanimity of mental attitude (referred to here as a “happy” state) among all sorts of people – whether wise or foolish, rich or poor – the kind of thing that Sri Krishna emphasizes on in the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā as the marker of a yogi. The Uberman or Superman is hardly differentiable from Gita’s yogi. But more on that later.
So much for the structural and semantic resemblances of Thus Spoke and Vedic/Upanishadic texts as far as the present part of the series is concerned. We will wind up this part by making a few general observations on misgivings about Nietzsche’s thoughts. This will prepare the groundwork for the next part in the series where we will delineate the broader points of convergence between Nietzschean philosophy and Vedanta.
One often comes across the platitude of accusing Nietzsche as a nihilist. Such a reading of Nietzsche usually comes from two quarters: first and foremost, the dogmatic Christian and secondly those Western intellectuals who are not intimately familiar with Vedanta, especially Advaita Vedanta. Nietzsche’s is the first systematic bold rejection of the fundamental tenets of the dogmatic framework of Judeo-Christian thought in all Western philosophy. Despite his infamous proclamation of the death of God, his works are hardly atheistic; in fact they are the first step towards a sound understanding of spirituality and man’s true nature. For it is only by dismantling the construct of a vengeful and jealous father-sitting-up-above-the-clouds first that one can make space for the reality of Man-God or Godly Uberman (Übermensch as Nietzsche had put it) to emerge and be firmly established in the world of thought. This new conception of God would be that of a supreme, absolute entity whose attributes encompass all of humanity and dares to proceed even beyond it, without violating human reason.
Nietzsche, in his capacity as a philosopher, has merely done that necessary job of freeing up intellectual space to make way for new conceptions in the Judeo-Christian West. The job had been done well, and it shook the ground of dogmatic believers – even that of the dogmatists among Western philosophers and scientists. As a result, the dogmatists became resentfully fixated upon what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra spoke at the end of the second part of “Zarathustra’s Prologue” in our text: “God is dead!” They surmised from that utterance a prophecy for an impending doomsday (how very predictable!) of nihilism reigning over the (Western, and by supremacist extrapolation, the whole) world. What they failed to understand – or worse still, perhaps refused to acknowledge – is that it was intended for pushing (primarily) the Christian out of his stupor in matters moral, spiritual, and even intellectual to a certain extent. Nietzsche had righty apprehended that sooner or later it will be apparent to the modern (and future) Westerner that his traditional theology, as well as the modern intellectual pursuits of the West, have both become morally and intellectually bankrupt to the core, having exhausted their respective limited scopes. Therefore, like a good captain of a large vessel embarked on a noble expedition, Nietzsche tries to give it a new direction. Combining utmost subtlety and great provocation in his expressions, Nietzsche orients the ship eastward. Plato would have been happy to see this German inheritor of a discipline he pioneered in hoary times installing some corrective measures that would ultimately rescue the Western society from shipwreck.
In the next part we will see the context of the proclamation “God is dead!” in this text and in light of Nietzsche’s other writings. We will ask the important question: which God, or more specifically, whose God is declared to be dead? We will also further elaborate upon the correspondences between the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā and Thus Spoke Zarathustra; we shall engage with one of Nietzsche’s key concepts in this text – that of Untergehen – and its comparability with the Indic concepts of yajña, karma and tyāga; with special reference to the concepts of sacrifice, offering, giving up; passing away and passing over; a phoenix rising from the ashes; rebirth, liberation, nirvāṇa, and mokṣa.
1. A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, Chandradhar Sharma, Motilal Banarsidas
2. History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Routledge
3. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Tr. by R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books
4. Taittiriya Upanishad, Swami Sharvananda, The Ramakrishna Math, Madras