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Nietzsche's Hinduism, Nietzsche's India: Another Look

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 28, Autumn 2004
pp. 37-56 | 10.1353/nie.2004.0015

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Nietzsche’s Hinduism, Nietzsche’s India:
Another Look

This essay attempts a provocative overview of Nietzsche's relationship with Hinduism and India.1 It is a reading that finds Nietzsche off balance and at a disadvantage, for its starting point is the fact that Nietzsche read the Laws of Manu [Manavadharmasastra]2 —the one Indian text that really excited him—in a popular edition whose absurd annotation of the text gained Nietzsche's credence. I refer to Louis Jacolliot's French translation.3 Manu was a relatively well-known text in nineteenth-century Europe and Jacolliot was a popular and indeed notorious writer. Nietzsche's choice of version shows, I suggest, ignorance of both scholarly and popular writing on India. I shall also consider Nietzsche's relationship with other key Hindu texts and his other references to Hinduism and India. In line with the starting point of Jacolliot, my discussion continues mainly in the context of French writers contemporary with Nietzsche, particularly Ernest Renan, the hugely successful author of Vie de Jésus and Professor of Semitic Languages at the Collège de France, in some respects a triumphant alter ego of Nietzsche, being both philologist and wide-ranging thinker, though today their relative importance is reversed. I conclude with brief assessments of the eternal return and the Übermensch in relation to Hinduism, and with a look at Nietzsche's own India, as distinct from his Hinduism.

Nietzsche, Jacolliot, and Manu

In Nietzsche's day there was considerable academic and popular interest in India and the religion of the majority of its inhabitants. Louis Jacolliot was not only a translator of Manu but also was a major popularizer of Hinduism and India. After the first flush of Enlightenment and then Romantic enthusiasm, European writing on India had become unfavorable to Hindus and Hinduism. Jacolliot's extreme enthusiasm for early Hinduism and with what seemed to be long and wide experience of contemporary India was a more or less unique combination, and for a while a winning one. In his heyday, the 1870s, Jacolliot's Hinduism and Jacolliot's India were significant factors on the popular literary and cultural scene—not only in France but also in Britain, the United States, and India, notwithstanding that they were the product of the imagination of a silly man. It [End Page 37] is bizarre to juxtapose Nietzsche with Jacolliot, the now immensely famous intellect with the forgotten fraud, but the juxtaposition arises from Nietzsche's acquisition and reading of Jacolliot's book. In Jacolliot's favor is the fact that he did know something about India, whereas Nietzsche is primarily an expert on himself, and the world as seen in the mirror of himself, his work "a bible for the solitary man."4 Jacolliot's India of occultism and dancing girls is the real thing misunderstood and embroidered by his imagination; Nietzsche's India is based on Nietzsche. Marcel Conche said, "'Nietzsche and Buddhism,'" which "means: "'Nietzsche and Buddhism' as he wishes to see it"5 —so too Nietzsche and Hinduism.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are of interest to Nietzsche not in themselves but as alternative positions from which to continue his attack on Christianity. Nietzsche declares that "the critic of Christianity is profoundly grateful to the students of India" for making Buddhism available as a religion to compare with Christianity.6 It may fairly be assumed that Nietzsche felt a similar gratitude in respect of the availability of Hinduism. Buddhism, as a pessimistic and decadent religion for Nietzsche, resembles Christianity "but is a hundred times [...] more truthful, more objective" (A 23). Hinduism is an affirmative religion rather than a negative one like Buddhism and Christianity, but, like Buddhism, it is a product of the ruling orders (KSA 13:14[195]/WP 154).7

Nietzsche seldom referred to Hinduism; nor did he use the word Hinduism, speaking rather of Brahmanism, the Vedanta, or Indian philosophy. However, the only extensive Indian text that he chose unprompted to read for himself was a central text of Hinduism not relating to philosophy, namely, Louis Jacolliot's version of the Laws of Manu. A valuable account of the defects of Jacolliot's book has been...