Academic journal article German Quarterly

Fear of Infinity: Friedrich Schlegel's Indictment of Indian Philosophy in Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Fear of Infinity: Friedrich Schlegel's Indictment of Indian Philosophy in Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier

Article excerpt

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Introduction: The Fear of Infinity

Friedrich Schlegel was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of the affiliation of German thought with Indian religious and philosophical ideas. His fervent enthusiasm for Hindu philosophy that began in 1797, however, atrophied into accusations of nihilism by 1808. While he continued the tradition of locating the origins of the Germans in India that found its most influential proponent in Johann Gottfried Herder, in Über die Sprache und die Weisheit derlndier (1808), Schlegel also found Hinduism and Buddhism to be a perversion of primordial truth, thus establishing a viewpoint about Asian religions that would prove detrimental to the exegesis of Asian religious texts by Europeans well into the twentieth century. As it unfolds in the composition of the book, the primary problem for Schlegel's encounter with Indian thought, and the reason for his eventual adversarial stance toward it, is the irreconcilability of Eastern concepts, such as the void out of which the universe is believed in Hinduism to have been created and destroyed, with their lack of equivalents in Western religions. The problem Schlegel had with the concept of the void, in particular, is indicative of what one might call his "fear of infinity."

Schlegel's fascination with Sanskrit literature reflects his longing to find in India a response to the challenge of Romanticism: a unifying spiritual revolution, outside traditional classical and Christian frameworks, that might synthesize religion, philosophy, and art. Schlegel emphasized the similarities between Vedantic philosophy and German idealism, which both center on questions of dualism. Schlegel's conversion to Catholicism during the same week in April 1808 in which Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der lndier was published, however, is also indicative of such longing. Novalis saw Hinduism as paving the way for Christianity, and Schlegel, like Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, not only agreed with this formulation, but increasingly believed Hinduism was but a pale shadow of the perfected Christianity to come. (Perhaps Novalis died too young to become adversarial about it.) This is already foreshadowed in Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier in his exegesis of Sanskrit texts such as the Manusmriti, the Râtnâyana, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gîta, andAbhi/nanasakuntalam.

Schlegel's spiritual difficulty did not lie, however, in an inability to commit to religious principles. It lay in an untenably enthusiastic initial investment in ideas whose apparent paradoxes he was unable to work out satisfactorily, causing him then to retreat from his zealous position. Dorothy M. Figueira and Bradley Herling have noted in Schlegel a dynamic identified by Edward Said in The World, the Text, and the Critic, in which initial unbridled enthusiasm for a foreign philosophical system reverses into tremendous disillusionment with and eventual condemnation of it (Figueira 56-57, Herling 117, Said 27). While I agree on the whole with Figuera's criticisms of Said's and Martin Bernal's polemical arguments against German Indology as being static and monolithic in its views, I also think that Schlegel's disenfranchisement with Sanskrit does, as Said intimates, foster stereotypes about Asian religions as nihilistic. Recently, Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi has faulted Figueira for underestimating the import of the political stance in Schlegel's book; however, Schlegel's nationalism is a spiritual problem, framed by notions of origin and destiny. Nationalism is a metaphysical and eschatological issue for Schlegel and his eventual indictment of Hindu philosophy is based on Schlegel's non-acceptance of metaphysical concepts that have no classical or Christian counterparts.

The concept of "the void"-the empty expanse out of which the universe may have arisen and may one day return-was an accepted part of Indian thinking beginning in ancient times. …

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