Friday, March 7, 2014

The bridge stretches from Pune to Potsdam

Raghunath Purushottam Paranjpye was a super-scholar who pioneered cultural bridge building between Indian and Germany. Germany has a long tradition of admiring Brahminic culture, in contrast to the English downplaying of the same (especially the missionaries). This is turn was appreciated by a new generation of scholars in Maharashtra and Bengal (including muslims who came over to Germany during/after the Khilafat movement- for example, Syed Mujataba Ali from Bengal).

Recent scholars have continued to explore this phenomena (termed Indomania- see below) and to even liken to India-Germany bond as akin to that of kindred spirits. Was there possible "anti-semitic undertones" (muslim for Indians, jews for Germans) in this appreciation?  

The teaching of German began in the Indian sub-continent — in Pune's New English School — 100 years ago at the initiative of the mathematician, educationist and social reformer Wrangler Raghunath Paranjpye. Though he had earned a tripos at Cambridge, he was in thrall of the excellence of German universities and reckoned, correctly as it turned out, that Indians pursuing higher studies in one of them would be doubly blessed. They would not only receive fine education in their respective disciplines but also get exposure to European culture in a country that had no colonial ties with India.

There could well have been another reason for Paranjpye's fascination for Germany. Educated Indians in his time, especially in Maharashtra and Bengal, were aware of the lively interest that some leading German thinkers had taken in India`s philosophical and literary traditions for close to two centuries. That sort of flattering attention stood in stark contrast to how many Christian missionaries, encouraged by British colonial rulers, sought to debunk those traditions.

Indeed, late in the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder, in his critique of the European Enlightenment, projected India as the cradle of civilisation. Around the same time (1791), Kalidasa's play 'Shakuntalam' was translated into German to great critical acclaim. One enthusiastic reaction to it came from Goethe. He hailed the poet as a "representative of the natural condition of the most refined life-style, the purest moral endeavour, the most dignified majesty and the most serious worship of God..."

Early in the 19th century, another distinguished thinker, Friedrich von Schegel, hailed Sanskrit as the "source of all languages, all thought, all poetics..." His brother, August Wilhelm, who became the first professor of Sanskrit at Bonn University in 1818 and is regarded as the founder of the discipline of Indology, translated Bhagvad Gita into Latin. None other than Hegel showered fulsome praise on it in a lengthy review.

Translations into German of other Indian philosophical and literary texts sustained the scholarly engagement with classical India. Its echoes reverberated through the writings of the Grimm brothers, those of philosopher Schopenhauer and even in Schubert's musical compositions. But the one scholar who scaled the tallest summits of Indology was Friedrich Max Mueller. He studied Sanskrit at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin, taught at Oxford and translated the Rig Veda and other ancient texts by the score — without once visiting India.

What prompted such great minds to extol Indian classical traditions of learning and creativity is not quite clear. Some scholars hold that their earlier sources of inspiration — ancient Greece and Rome — had dried up. So they turned to Indian civilisation to expand their intellectual horizons and finesse their aesthetic sensibilities.

Now, a group of Indian experts on German Indology have begun to question this theory. In early January, Joydeep Bagchee, a brilliant young scholar, had an altogether different take on what lay behind German interest in ancient India. He argued, in substance, that the Protestant heritage of German Indologists prompted them to interpret Indian texts in ways that were conducive to their own intellectual interests that often carried anti-Semitic undertones.

[Another excellent reference on Indo-German link and Indomania]

Transcultural Encounters between Germany and India: Kindred Spirits in the 19th and 20th Centuries; Edited by Joanne Miyang Cho, Eric Kurlander, Douglas T McGetchin

Providing a comprehensive survey of cutting edge scholarship in the field of German--Indian and South Asian Studies, the book looks at the history of German--Indian relations in the spheres of culture, politics, and intellectual life. Combining transnational, post-colonial, and comparative approaches, it includes the entire twentieth century, from the First World War and Weimar Republic to the Third Reich and Cold War era.

The book first examines the ways in which nineteenth-century "Indomania" figured in the creation of both German national identity and modern German scholarship on the Orient, and it illustrates how German encounters with India in the Imperial era alternately destabilized and reinforced the orientalist, capitalist, and nationalist underpinnings of German modernity. Contributors discuss the full range of German responses to India, and South Asian perceptions of Germany against the backdrop of war and socio-political revolution, as well as the Third Reich's ambivalent perceptions of India in the context of racism, religion, and occultism. The book concludes by exploring German--Indian relations in the era of decolonization and the Cold War.


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