Indian Influence
An article about how Indian school of philosophy has impacted different prominent cultures around the world

Abhijit Pendse (

From the very earliest times, India has made its contribution to the texture of Western thought and living. Throughout the literature of Europe, tales of Indian origin can be discovered. European mathematics - and through them, the full range of European technical achievement - could hardly have existed without Indian numerals. But until the beginning of European colonization in Asia, India's contribution was usually filtered through other cultures. Direct contact did not bring understanding, travelers' tales, rather, increased the sense of wonder. Even commerce helped to feed the imagination, for its trading cargoes - of bezoars stones, musk, silk and pearls - were luxuries, exotic and non-European. The 'gorgeous East' became an essential part of the western view of India, influencing the ideas of merchants as well as of poets.

In the second part of the eighteenth century, works of travel, memoirs and histories increased enormously in number, and from them Europe began to assemble an image of India less concerned with physical wonders than with ideas. The philosophers, always on the lookout for some ideal civilization, first thought they had found it in China, and then began to consider India a more likely place. By 1775, Voltaire was convinced that Western astronomy and astrology had come from somewhere along the river Ganges. The French astronomer, Bailly, who was guillotined during the French Revolution, maintained that the Brahmins of India had been tutors of the Greeks and, through them, of Europe. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, there was a general feeling amongst European intellectuals that Indian civilization was of great antiquity - but it was only a feeling, for they did not have access to Indian literature. Very little was known about it, and no translations from Sanskrit, the literary language, had appeared.

The first adaptation of a Sanskrit work into a Western language had appeared as early as 1651; this was of a collection of lyrics by the poet Bhartrihari, who died AD 651. The adaptation was, in fact, a paraphrase in Dutch prose of a version in Portuguese. The existence of Sanskrit had been known for some time in the West, but as it was a sacred and liturgical language used only by the priestly caste for ritual observances, it was difficult to find a Brahmin willing to teach it to a European. Jesuit missionaries had acquired some knowledge of the language, and it was a work compiled by them - L'Ezour Vedam, a highly inaccurate version of the Yajur Veda-which was to influence Voltaire. In 1762, a young Frenchman, Anquetil Duperron, who had discovered a manuscript in a Paris shop and had gone out to India as a soldier in the service of the French East India Company in order to learn how to decipher it - returned to Paris with a number of manuscripts, one of which was a Persian version of sixty sections of the ancient Hindu work, the Upnishads. This he published in 1801-02 in a peculiar mixture of Persian, Latin and Greek. Duperron's work known as the Oupnekhat, so affected the German philosopher, Schopenhauer that he later claimed: 'It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.'

The real revelation of Sanskrit literature, however, was to come as a byproduct of the establishment of direct British rule in Bengal. Warren Hastings encouraged the study of Sanskrit for a purely practical purpose-to ascertains the nature of Hindu law. A number of digests were first prepared, but these were found to be inadequate and it proved necessary to go to the original sources. Nevertheless, the first published translation from the Sanskrit was not of a law book, but of the great philosophical poem, the Bhagwat Gita. This appeared in 1785 and was the work of Charles Wilkins (1749-1836). In his preface Wilkins noted that the work was only imperfectly understood even by the most learned Brahmins of the time. It was even less likely to be understood by the Europeans, and its publication had no immediate impact.

William Jones's translation of the play Sakuntala, by the dramatist Kalidasa (AD 400) was a very different matter. Jones who had been appointed a judge at Calcutta in 1783, helped to found the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the following year. He first translated Sakuntala into Latin, maintaining that it was the only European language, which had any resemblance to Sanskrit. He then translated, the Latin version into English, and it was this, first published in 1789, which was later translated into other European languages. To his translation, Jones added no notes and only a very short preface, assuming perhaps that his English readers would already be sufficiently acquainted with Hindu mythology and Indian life through the publications of the Asiatic society.

Some of them undoubtedly were, and there are traces of Indian ideas in the works of Shelley and Wordsworth, among others. But the real effect of Jones's work and of other translations from Sanskrit was to appear in the poets and writers of early nineteenth century Germany.

German Fascination

The passionate enthusiasm with which the German romantics were to grasp at India and Indian ideas owed a great deal to the pioneer work of Johann Herder (1744-1803). He had early acquired from works of travel a reverence for India, which was reinforced by the translations of Wilkins and Jones. In his preface to the second German edition of Sakuntala (first translated by Foster in 1791), Herder maintained that, on the Ganges, that river of paradise, the golden age actually did exist. Suggesting Ram Raj) the discovery of Indian ideas came at a time of profound intellectual upheaval in Europe. The French revolution and its aftermath shook even more than the social and political foundations of Europe. Writers and philosophers had become receptive to new modes of thought, and India seemed capable of satisfying them. Paris was then the center of oriental studies, and one of the East India Company's servants, Alexander Hamilton, had been detained there by the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and France. Hamilton was something of a Sanskrit scholar, and came in contact with Chezy, who had taught himself the language. From these two men, Friedrich Schlegel - who had journeyed to Paris in 1802 in quest of the new Indian vision of life and happiness-acquired knowledge of Sanskrit. In 1803, he was able to claim that he had become such an expert copyist of Sanskrit characters that he could have earned his living as a scribe in India.

The reaction of German writers to India followed two distinct lines. Schlegel represented a longing for harmony between the arts and sciences, for that unity of philosophy, religion and art which had existed in the Middle Ages but which had been broken by the progress of Western civilization. Schlegel and those who thought like him believed that such a unity still existed in India, and that Hinduism represented a synthesis of personal, social and political life. They thought that the Hindu world offered a concrete ideal, a genuine example for a politically divided Europe. They were sure that, through a meeting of the cultures of East and West, the most profound revelation of the human spirit could be achieved. This vast structure of hopes was based upon the most meager of foundations. In the mind of the romantics, legend had taken on the lineaments of reality.

They did, in fact, realize this at the time, and it was their desire to reinforce assumptions with fact-or, rather, with a wider range of data-which produced the second line of interest in Germany, that of comparative linguistics. Unwilling to receive Indian ideas only by way of translation, the romantics encouraged the scholarly study of Sanskrit. Ironically, this withered the ideal. Friedrich Schlegel, disillusioned, turned away from India. Others, such as the mythologist Friedrich Majer (1772-1818) and the philosopher Schelling (1775-1854), Who’s thought has a particular Indian cast, kept the image alive. But even to them, it was no longer the image of a golden age.

French Connection

India had no great effect upon French writers beyond supplying an occasional exotic image, despite the fact that French oriental scholarship was of a particularly high order and there was constant intercourse between scholars and poets. This was mainly because the French intellectual climate was very different from that of Germany. French romanticism was not so much a quest for eternal truth as a search for new literary forms and language. Josephe Mery, whose novels 'Les Damnes de l'Inde' and 'La Guerre du Nizam' went into many editions in the mid nineteenth century, was described in his time as the most Hindu poet who ever existed! It may be difficult today, to see why.

It was the American poets of the transcendentalist school who were to be the real heirs of German romanticism and its enthusiasm for Indian ideas. This came about principally through Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Scots historian and essayist, and his translations and criticisms of some of the German poets. The American transcendentalists, of whom the most important was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), fundamentally represented a reaction against the puritan prejudices and the materialistic philistinism of the emergent American society. The sources of their ideas were an odd mixture of Plato and Swedenborg, German idealism, Carlyle, English poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, and translations of oriental literature. Emerson had some acquaintance with Sanskrit texts, and his view of the omnipresent deity and of the human personality as a passing phase of Universal Being is contained in what is almost a paraphrase of part of the Bhagvad Gita, his poem 'Brahma'.

Emerson's lines :

If the red slayer thinks he slays Or if the slain thinks he is slain
They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Are very close to Krishna's words to Arjuna: 'He who deems this to be a slayer and he who thinks this to be slain, are alike without discernment, this slays not, neither it is slain.

British had their share of India

As the British became surer of their position in India and developed a sense of mission, there grew up contempt for Indian culture. This was partly due to cultural arrogance on the part of the British, who dismissed Indian literature as pagan rubbish and Indian science as primitive nonsense. Macauly disposed of 'the whole native literature of India' as 'medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier - Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school - History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long - and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter'. Such an attitude tended to discredit Indian culture in the eyes of Victorian England, and to give eccentric and non-conformist overtones to any interest in it. There are very few references to India, let alone Indian influences, in English creative literature, although in the twentieth century a growing interest in Eastern philosophy - which had begun in the 1890s - influenced the works of such poets as W.B.Yeats and 'AE'. Towards the end of his life, the latter, in collaboration with an Indian, produced a version of the Upnishads. (1937).

Fortunately, the attitude of McCauley and others did not affect scholarly research, which, since it satisfied the Victorian criterion of scientific curiosity, was not regarded as eccentric in its Indian manifestation. In 1870, there began in France the publication of the Bibliotheque Orientale. Four years later, in England, came the great series of sacred books of the East, under the editorship of Friedrich Max-Muller (1823-1900). Between them, these two series were to make the Hindu scriptures available for the first time to the general reader. In 1875, James Fergusson published his History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, the first important work on the subject.

Pali literature

The new interest in Hindu literature and art had its parallel in the study of Pali literature and of the Buddhist scriptures written in that language.

The message of the Buddha was little known before the middle of the nineteenth century. Brian Hodgson, the British representative in Nepal, had indeed collected Buddhist manuscripts there in the early of the century, and James Prinsep, another servant of the East India Company, had deciphered inscriptions of the Buddhist emperor, Asoka.

But these were known only to a very small number of Europeans until Eugene Burnouf published his immensely influential Introduction a l'Histoire de Bouddhism Indian in 1844. R. Spence Hardy's Manual of Buddhism appeared in 1853, and five years later a popular life of the Buddha by Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire was published in France. The discovery of the Buddhist scriptures went on, and their influence can be traced in the works of such disparate personalities as Richard Wagner and Tolstoy, as well as, in the paintings of Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and others. Perhaps the most superb example of Buddhist influence can be found in the works of Herman Hesse, particularly his mystical novel Siddartha (1926). In the case of Wagner, both Buddhist and Hindu ideas had a tremendous appeal. His knowledge of Buddhism was acquired almost entirely from Burnouf. Wagner absorbed Indian ideas and transformed them to suit his aesthetic purpose. They appear in the libretti of such operas as Parsifal (1882), in which he used an episode from the great epic of the Ramayana (c.400 BC). In a sense, he succeeded in producing a synthesis of East and West, and from it derived the materials of a universal drama. In this, he was in a direct line from the early German romantics.

Influence on Russia

Madam Blavatsky, Russian national (1831-91) was another myth-maker whose work had considerable-though fortunately less perverse-influence on European thought in the late Victorian period. In 1880, in the company of an American, Colonel Olcott, with whom she had worked during a series of spiritualist seances she had given in the United States, Madame Blavatsky went to India. From there, she was able to reveal to those Westerners who had become disillusioned with orthodox religion and were on the look out for some other means of satisfying their appetite for miracles, that the world was under the guidance of a number of mahatmas residing at some imprecise location in Tibet.

The Theosophical Society, which she had founded in New York in 1875, propagated an elaborate and rather insecurely based philosophy owing much to Hinduism, though it was largely dressed up in Christian terms. The society had a considerable vogue under its second president, Mrs. Annie Besant (1847-1933), who was, in fact, to play a helpful role in the cause of Indian nationalism. Though the Society's view of Hinduism was unscholarly and uncritical, it did persuade a large number of people in the West to read some of the Hindu classics. It was, however, left to Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902) to create the popular image of India and to supply the vocabulary with which ideas have been expressed in the West. Vivekananda, a disciple of the Bengali ascetic and visionary, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, wrote in English. He produced an idealized vision of India-spiritual, non-violent, the repository of life's secrets.

Influence on our long time neighbour-China

It was through Buddhism that China and India came near to each other and developed many contacts. Whether there were any such contacts before Ashoka's reign we do not know for sure, probably there was some sea-borne trade, for silk used to come from China, while India exported condiments, ivory, cotton and gem stones. Yet there must have been overland contacts and migrations of peoples in far earlier periods, for Mongoloid features are common in the eastern border areas of India. In Nepal these are very much marked. In Assam (Kamarupa of old) and Bengal they are often evident.

Historically speaking, however, Ashoka's missionaries blazed the trail and as Buddhism spread in China, there began that long succession of pilgrims and scholars who journeyed between India and china for 1000 years. They traveled overland across the Gobi desert and the plains and mountains of Central Asia and over the Himalayas - a long, hard journey full of peril. Many Indians and Chinese perished on the way, and one account says that as many as 90 percent of these pilgrims perished. Many, having managed to reach the end of their journey, did not return and settled in the land of their adoption. There was another route also, not much safer, though probably shorter and this was by sea via Indo-China, Java and Sumatra, Malaya and the Nicobar Islands. This was also frequently used and sometimes a pilgrim traveled overland and returned by sea. Buddhism and Indian culture had spread all over Central Asia and in parts of Indonesia, and there were large numbers of monasteries and study centers dotted all over these vast areas. Travelers from India or China thus found a welcome and shelter along these routes by land and sea. Sometimes Scholars from China would break journey for a few months at some Indian colony in Indonesia in order to learn Sanskrit before they came to main land India.

The first record of an Indian scholar's visit to China is that of Kashyapa Matanga who reached China in 67 AC in the reign of the Emperor Ming Ti and probably at his invitation. He settled down at Lo Yang by the Lo River. Dharmaraksha accompanied him, and in later years, among the noted scholars who went were Buddhabhadra, Jinabhadra, Kumarajiva, Paramartha, Jinagupta and Bodhidharma. Each one of these took a group of monks or disciples with him. It is said that at one time (sixth century AC), there were 3,000 Indian Buddhist monks and 10,000 Indian families in the Lo Yang province alone.

These Indian scholars who went to China not only carried many Sanskrit manuscripts with them, which they translated into Chinese, but some of them also wrote original books in the Chinese language. They made quite a considerable contribution to Chinese literature, including poetry. Kumarajiva, who went to China in 401 AD, was a prolific writer and as many as forty-seven different books written by him have come to be known. His Chinese style is supposed to be very good. He translated the life of the great Indian scholar and logician Nagarjuna into Chinese. Jinagupta went to China in the second half of the sixth century AC. He translated thirty-seven original Sanskrit works into Chinese. His great knowledge was so admired that an emperor of the T'ang dynasty became his ardent disciple.

There was two-way traffic between India and China and many Chinese scholars came here. Among the best known that have left records of their journeys are Fa Hien, Sung Yun, Hsuan Tsang and I-Tsing. Fa Hien came to India in the fifth century; he was a disciple of Kumarajiva in China. There is an interesting account of what Kumarajiva told him on the eve of his departure for India, when he went to take leave of his teacher. Kumarajiva charged him not to spend all his time in gathering religious knowledge only but to study in some detail the life and habits of the people of India, so that China might understand them and their country as a whole. Fa Hien studied at Patliputra University in Bihar. However the most famous of all the Chinese travelers to India was Hsuan Tsang who came in the seventh century when the great T'ang dynasty flourished in China and Harshavardhana ruled over a vast empire in North India. Hsuan Tsang came overland across the Gobi desert and passing Turfan and Kucha, Tashkand and Samarkand, Balkh, Khotan and Yarkand, crossing lofty Himalayas into India.

He tells us of his many adventures, of the perils he overcame, of the Buddhist rulers and monasteries in Central Asia, and of the Turks there who were ardent Buddhists. In India he traveled all over the country, greatly honored and respected everywhere, making accurate observations of places and peoples, and noting down some delightful and some fantastic stories that he heard. Many years he spent at the great Nalanda University, not far from Patliputra, which was famous for its many sided learning and attracted students from far corners of the country. It is generally said that as many as 10,000 students and monks were in residence there. Hsuan Tsang took the degree of Master of Law there and finally became vice-principal of the university.

Hsuan Tsang's book the Si-Yu-Ki or the record of the Western Kingdom (as India is known in Chinese classics) makes interesting and fascinating reading. Coming from a highly civilized and sophisticated country, at a time when china's capital Si-an-fu was a center of art and learning, his comments on and descriptions of conditions in India are very valuable. He talks about the system of education which began early and proceeded by stages to the university where the five branches of knowledge taught were: (1) Grammar, (2) Science of arts and crafts (3) Medicine (4) Logic and mathematics (5) Philosophy. He was particularly struck by the love of learning of the Indian people. Some kind of primary education was fairly widespread as all the monks and priests were teachers. Of the people he says: 'with respect to the ordinary people, although they are naturally light-minded, yet they are upright and honorable. In money matters they are without craft, and in administering justice they are considerate. They are not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct, and are faithful in their oaths and promises. In their rules of government, there is remarkable rectitude, whilst in their behavior there is much gentleness and sweetness. With respect to criminals or rebels, these are few in number, and only occasionally troublesome.' He writes further: 'as the administration of the government is founded on benign principles, the executive is simple People are not subject to forced labor (meaning slavery did not exist). In this way taxes on people are light. The merchants who engage in commerce come and go in carrying out their transactions. Business deals are affected by the trust of the word of the mouth. 'Hsuan Tsang returned to China the way he came, via central Asia, carrying a large number of manuscripts with him. From his account one gathers a vivid impression of the wide sway of Buddhism in Khorasan, Iraq, Mosul and right upto the frontier of Syria. And yet this was a time when Buddhism was in decay there and Islam, already beginning in Arabian Peninsula, was soon to spread out over all these lands. About the Iranian people, Hsuan Tsang makes an interesting observation: they 'care not for learning, but give themselves entirely to works of art. All they make, the neighboring countries value very much.' Iran then, as before and after, concentrated on adding to the beauty and grace of life, and its influence spread far in Asia. He further mentions of a strange little kingdom of Turfan, on the edge of the Gobi desert. Here many cultures came and mixed and coalesced, producing a rich combination, which drew its inspiration from China and India and Persia, and even Hellenic sources. The language current there was Indo-European, derived from India and Iran, and resembling in some ways the Celtic languages of Europe, the religion came from India, the ways of life were Chinese, many of the artistic wares they had were from Iran. The statues and frescoes of the Buddhas and gods and goddesses, beautifully made, have often-Indian draperies and Grecian headdresses. Historian Monsieur Grousset records: These goddesses represent 'the happiest combination of Hindu suppleness, Hellenic eloquence and Chinese charm'.

Hsuan Tsang went back to his homeland, welcomed by his Emperor and his people, and settled down to write his book and translate the many manuscripts he had brought with him from India. When he started his journey many years earlier, there is a story that the Emperor T'ang mixed a handful of dust in a drink and offered this to him, saying: 'You would do well to drink this cup, for are we not told that a handful of one's country's soil is worth more than ten thousand weights of foreign gold?' Hsuan-Tsang's visit to India and the great respect in which he was held both in India and China led to the establishment of political contacts between the rulers of the two countries. Harshavardhana of kanauj and the T'ang Emperor exchanged embassies. Hsuan-Tsang himself remained in touch with India, exchanging letters with friends there and receiving manuscripts. Two interesting letters, originally written in Sanskrit, have been preserved in China. (Many an attempts by India government since independence could not succeed in bringing them back as they are regarded by China as their prized treasure). An Indian Buddhist scholar, Sthavira Prajnadeva, wrote one of these in 654 AC to Hsuan Tsang. After greeting and news about common friends and their literary work, he proceeds to say: 'we are sending you a pair of white cloths to show that we are not forgetful. The road is long; so do not mind the smallness of the present. We wish you might accept it. As regards the Sutras and Shastras, which you may require please, send us a list. We will copy them and send them to you.' Hsuan Tsang in his reply says: 'I learnt from an ambassador who recently came back from India that the great teacher Shilabhadra was no more. This news overwhelmed me with grief that knew no bounds. Among the Sutras and Shastras that I, Hsuan Tsang had brought with me I have already translated the Yogacharyabhumi-Shastra and other works, in all thirty volumes. I should humbly let you know that while crossing the Indus I had lost a load of sacred texts. I now send you a list of the texts annexed to this letter. I request you to send them to me if you get the chance. I am sending some small articles as presents. Please accept them.' Soon thereafter Hsuan Tsang died in China. One more important Chinese visitor to India in the pursuit of truth and knowledge was I-tsing or Yi-tsing.

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