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Max Mueller Bhavan | India New Delhi

Ideal and disillusion
India in German literature

The typewriter of the writer Hermann Hesse in the Hermann Hesse Museum, Montagnola, Ticino, Switzerland.
The typewriter of the writer Hermann Hesse in the Hermann Hesse Museum, Montagnola, Ticino, Switzerland. | © Altrendo Images

India is a place yearned for by many German writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it is also received in other ways, arousing curiosity for what is to come.

By Dr. Krisha Kops

Whether literature, philosophy or language: there has always been a special relationship between “Indo-Germania.” For instance, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schlegel wrote something that is paradigmatic not only for the Romantics but for the reception of India from antiquity to the present: “If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of antiquity. What new source of poetry could then flow from India […]? In the Orient, we must look for the most sublime form of the Romantic; the most profound and innermost life of imagination.” India is considered by German authors to be something imaginative, dreamlike and magical; the primordial, even the ideal, for which one longs.

This idea reaches Germany through the Alexander Novel as well as fables like the Panchatantra and other writings. To a certain extent, this also applies to the image of India in twentieth-century German literature. The choice of the subject alone reflects this longing. The focus is not on modern India, but above all on the past India of warriors, kings and monks. In Alfred Döblin’s novel Manas (1927), for example, the eponymous protagonist is the son of a prince, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) he is the son of a Brahmin.

India served as a projection surface for German discourse

India also served as a venue for domestic conflicts; often questions of spirituality and faith in a Germany where God is dead – or in the throes of death. They can also be questions of identity, as in Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads (1940). Later, it is Ernst Wiechert in his novel Der weiße Büffel (1946), written during the Nazi era, who uses ancient India as a material to criticise despotism.

Not infrequently, personal worldviews are mixed in with these examinations. For example, the dialectic between heaven and hell, which is not completely foreign to the subcontinent, but by far does not play the role it does in Franz Werfel’s Mirror-Man (1920) or Manas, which in some ways is reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

“Ancient India” in the content and form of German literature

Escaping into the past is not only evident in the themes, but also in the language, sometimes even in the form. “Let it suffice that this maiden,” the main character in Karl Gjellerup’s The Pilgrim Kamanita (1907) describes his lover, “with the gentle radiance of the moon in her face, was of such faultless form and glowed in every feature with the freshness of youth, that I felt her to be the incarnate Goddess of Fortune and Beauty. Every hair on my body quivered with delight as I beheld her.”

Döblin’s novel recalls the form of Hindu epics. In his book of poetry Nirvana und Samsara (1900), the now-forgotten poet Peter Philipp borrows the (originally Arabic) verse form of the ghazal. For India is also a recurring theme in poetry, whether in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Snake-Charmer” (1907/08), Hugo Ball’s “Buddha und der Knabe” (1913) or Bertold Brecht’s “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House” (1937), which is in turn inspired by Gjellerup’s novel. As in the prose, exoticised India is mostly the focus here.

Buddhism at the centre of German literature

It is not surprising that many of these novels and poems take up Buddhist themes. While Hinduism dominated reception at the beginning of the nineteenth century, more attention was paid to Buddhism by philosophers and writers from the middle of that century due to publications such as Karl Friedrich Köppen’s Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung (1857 and 1859). In addition to many poems, Siddhartha, Fritz Mauthner’s Der letzte Tod des Gautama Buddha (1913), Gjellerup’s The Pilgrim Kamanita as well as Das Weib des Vollendeten (1907) and possibly Mirror-Man can be mentioned here. 

The increasing presence of India in German literature was fostered above all by the easier travel conditions. The opening of the Suez Canal, newly opened travel routes for tourist steamships and expanded railway networks contribute to writers such as Hermann Hesse, Waldemar Bonsels and Stefan Zweig (who wrote “The Eyes of My Brother, Forever” (1921)) travelling to India or neighbouring states. Perhaps the flight into romanticism can also be explained by the fact that many of these travellers – including Hesse and Zweig – were disillusioned, if not disappointed, by the India they encountered.

Magisterial and curatorial interpretations

In addition to this “exoticist” approach, the image of India in German literature since 1900 could be divided, following Amartya Sen, into a “curatorial” and “magisterial” view. While the exoticist approach focuses on the wondrous Other, the magisterial approach is characterised by (originally colonial) power relations that make India something inferior, perhaps worth protection. The curatorial approach, on the other hand, is one driven by curiosity, it is multifaceted and categorising.

The magisterial approach is advocated above all by British utilitarianists such as James Mill in the nineteenth century. In a certain, lesser way, one can see continuity in this respect with Ingeborg Drewitz’s Mein indisches Tagebuch (1983), Günter Grass’s novel The Flounder (1977) and his illustrated diary Show Your Tongue (1987). A break in (literary) history emerged after the Second World War. Idealising and romanticising literature is often replaced by disillusioning literature.

And although the reception of India gained renewed enthusiasm with the 1968 generation, it was not captured in literature in Germany – unlike in Anglo-American literature, for example by the Beat Generation. Anything that was written about India was usually about the developing country. For instance, in Show Your Tongue Günter Grass writes, “Misery, cripples dragging themselves on stumps over leather caps across the cracked pavement. Mangy dogs. A man sprawled sleeping across the pavement. Step over him!”

The present and future of India in German literature

Although not comparable to the omnipresence of India in everyday culture, the literary reception of India picks up again in the 1990s, this timeless exotic or magisterial. Among them are Martin Mosebach’s novel Das Beben (2005), his travelogue Stadt der wilden Hunde. Nachrichten aus dem alltäglichen Indien (2008), Ilija Trojanow’s The Collector of Worlds (2006) and Josef Winkler’s novels Domra. Am Ufer des Ganges (1996) and Roppongi. Requiem für einen Vater (2008).

Writers strove for more objective, more diverse representations. Winkler, in particular, pours out detailed descriptions dripping with adjectives, hypotactic, sometimes voyeuristic: “Immediately beneath the round cremation altar stone, on which the boy stood with bare feet in the cold ashes among the black, small pieces of charcoal and the charred, grey-white, fine-holed particles of bone of a cremated body...”

It is not easy to write about India. Especially from a distance. India is too complex, too contradictory. We can be curious to see whether and how German writers will encounter India in the future. Especially writers of migration or “new world literature,” as the literary critic Sigrid Löffler called it. For while this kind of Indian literature has recently achieved world fame in the English-speaking world through greats like Salman Rushdie, it is only gradually becoming visible in Germany.