On a rain- and snow-filled night in early November 1868, a young student of classical philology named Friedrich Nietzsche, wrapped in an old coat that barely kept him warm, walked to the Theatre Café in Leipzig. There he met his friend Ernst Windisch, a fellow student at the university who was studying classical Indology, the science of ancient Indian texts. The two proceeded to the home of Windisch’s teacher, Hermann Brockhaus, a professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Leipzig and one of the most celebrated Sanskritists in Europe. The most important family member, the one whom Nietzsche had come expressly to meet, was the composer Richard Wagner, who was visiting his sister, Frau Ottilie Brockhaus, the wife of Hermann Brockhaus.
Wagner, then 56, was captivated by the young Nietzsche’s brilliance and flattered by his knowledge of his work. The friendship that began that evening was to last many years, finally ending with the creation of Parsifal, Wagner’s last work. But all that really mattered to them in the world of civilisation was there that evening: India, Greece and Germany – joined, inter-connected, and even (to them) identified by the science of philology, the study of ancient texts and languages.
Nietzsche was to become one of the most influential European philosophers of the 19th century and Wagner one of its most celebrated composers. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Wagner was also a political revolutionary and ideologue – one who saw in the Orient, particularly India, the roots of German civilisation and culture. He was subsequently instrumental in bringing these ideas into wider circulation in Germany and Europe.
Wagner’s concepts of the Orient and his use of them were not merely ornamental spiritual exotica, as some have supposed. Rather, they were crucial elements of his ideology – one that was articulated as he developed as an artist and was later echoed by some of the 20th century’s most controversial figures, including Adolf Hitler. Behind the oriental pseudo-profundities of a dramatically distorted Buddhism – suffering, renunciation and redemption – lay the banalities of Wagner’s racism, nurtured from childhood and fed intellectually by the philological thought of the day.
On the face of it, it is hard to see what one might mean by Wagner’s ‘Orient’ or his Orientalism. There is no Lakmé, no Madama Butterfly, no Turandot in his completed works. Rather, they are based on Shakespeare, Italian, and Germanic material. Where is the Orient? Simply put, there are three orients in Wagner’s life and work, all textual and all imagined. The first is the Biblical, or, as he probably would have called it, the Jewish Orient. The second is the Islamic Orient, the near horizon for many of his music dramas, the orient of the Crusades, against which the medieval Germanic knights waged holy war. Finally, there is the Orient of ancient Iran and India, the far horizon for his works, the birthplace of Brahmanism and Buddhism. According to Wagner, the latter were the two highest forms of human thought and their geography was the site of his utopic, imaginary land of beginnings.
For Wagner, there was also an orient from which he borrowed a conceptual vocabulary. This was primarily India, with whose philosophy and literature he had fair familiarity. The concepts were Sanskrit – ideas such as samsara, nirvana, karma, ahimsa. These ideas occurred frequently in his conversations and writings and were part of the everyday talk of his inner circle. Throughout his life and artistic success, ideas for two Oriental operatic works remained particularly important for Wagner: one entitled Jesus of Nazareth, the other called Die Sieger (The Victors), a Buddhist opera. It is these two uncompleted works that obsessed his later years.
Much of the eastern fascination on the part of Wagner and his circle arose from some odd points of identification between Germany and India, the supposed similarities between the systems of thought of Germany and ancient India. These were specifically the major tenets of Brahmanism and Buddhism, as well as a convoluted reading of the linguistic terms Indo-Germanic or Indo-Aryan. Through these, early Indian thought came to be seen as the first manifestation of German thought – its ancestor and earliest statement. However bizarre such an idea might appear today, it was taken by people like Richard Wagner as certain.
Wagner’s views were not dependent on his artitrary interpretation, but were based upon what he considered to be the real historical link between the early Indian thinkers and their descendants, the medieval and modern Germans. From the sages of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, through Martin Luther, Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, this history and development of German thought was believed to be found. Wagner saw the ideas enunciated by these thinkers as outwardly different but conceptually identical. This identity was reached through a process of uprooting and decontextualising major tenets of both the German and Indian traditions. For Wagner himself, the ideas of karma and rebirth were not only true on the individual level, but were the operative theories of history: German thought and civilisation had been reborn in different stages of history, beginning with the Indian, then Greco-Roman, and finally German, medieval and modern. Each stage surpassed the previous, in a kind of Hegelian-Karmic-Hindu dialectic.
The rebirth relationship between these three cultures leaves unanswered questions. But for Wagner, the main question was that of Christianity. While Christianity had its first appearance during the Greco-Roman period, it was also a religion that had been, in Wagner’s judgement, perverted by its association with Judaism. In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt, he proffered that “uncontaminated Christianity is … a branch of that venerable Buddhist religion which, following Alexander’s Indian campaign, found its way, among other places, to the shores of the Mediterranean.” Christianity, in short, has nothing to do with Judaism in terms of its teachings or origins. It is Buddhist in origin, Hellenic in its manifestation of Jesus, and German in its medieval and modern appearances.
While Wagner found the identification of the Buddha and Jesus free of difficulty, his writings allude to some of the problems he was having with this intellectual progression. In attempting to reconcile the Buddha’s “gentle, pure renunciation” with Luther’s “monkish impossibility”, Wagner notes that in cold Germany, “our life is so plagued, that without ‘Wine, Women, and Song’ we could not possibly hold out, or serve the old God himself.” Accompanying these ponderings is the sketch of the Buddhist work that Wagner had entitled Die Sieger. The composer found this story of “the Buddha on his last journey” in Eugene Burnouf’s Introduction a l’Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien. The story occupied Wagner’s mind possibly longer than any of his other sketches – until his death, in fact, at which time his wife writes of the composer telling her from his bed, “If you look after me well, clothe me well, feed me well, then I shall still compose Die Sieger.”
Despite his attraction to the text, Wagner did not complete Die Sieger. Instead, he took much of the conceptual material for that opera and incorporated it into Parsifal – his final work, his “last card”, as he called it. This was his ultimate attempt to Aryanise and ‘Buddhicise’ Christianity, transforming it into a truly German religion. What was the source that enabled him to do this?
The scene is now 22 May 1873, Richard Wagner’s 60th birthday. His wife Cosima, together with their children, has prepared a surprise party for him. She records some of the presents in her diaries:
… Danielle carried in the Laurana Gallery etchings of Raphael, drawings which R. had once seen and admired at the home of the painter Hubner; Blandine, l’Histoire du Bouddhisme, by Burnouf; and the two little girls Le Roman de Douze Pairs from R.’s former library … Something curious occurred early in the day: R. dreamed about bookbindings and that he had told the bookbinder that it would look well if the titles were printed in black on a light background instead of gold. Now it so happened that, when I sent Burnouf’s book to be bound, I had the idea of getting the author’s name and the date of the work done in black. This little coincidence gives us much delight.
Much is made by the couple of this book by the French Orientalist Eugene Burnouf, now bound in leather with black lettering. Since Wagner first discovered it, the book had been an almost sacred scripture for him, made even more so by the coincidence of his dream with Cosima’s decision.
What is this book? Wagner and Cosima constantly refer to it as the Introduction a l’Histoire du Bouddhisme, but the complete title contains one more word, always left out: the word indien, or Indian. Burnouf, in his own introduction to the work, makes it very clear that the materials used in his magnum opus were not from India, even as it was generally understood at the time to encompass the Subcontinent. Rather, Burnouf emphasises that the material came from Nepal – 88 manuscripts in all, some older ones written on palm leaf. Here is the juxtaposition of two terms relating to the kind of Buddhism under discussion: indien and nepalais. Does the distinction matter? Does the place of origin affect the nature of the Buddhism described?
Burnouf’s source materials were mostly paper manuscripts, and relatively recent. Some were copies of unobtainable originals. Their language was Sanskrit, with some translations and commentaries in the local language of the Nepal Valley, Newari. The Sanskrit was difficult in places, quite opaque in others. Most importantly, however, almost all of them were acquired through just one particular source – a Newar priest, whom Burnouf described as “un bouddhiste nepalais”. Who is this unnamed Nepali Buddhist? What kind of Nepali priest is he?
Burnouf spent ten years of his life on the l’Histoire du Bouddhisme project – reading, analysing, and presenting these manuscripts. The young Burnouf had also been one of a handful of students to sit at the feet of the English Sanskritist H H Wilson, while in London. At the time that he undertook the Buddhism project, Burnouf was already known for his decipherment of the Persian cuneiform inscriptions at Perseopolis.
He had given up other opportunities for the Bouddhisme project, including the editing of the Rig Veda itself, which he turned over to Max Mueller. The Nepali manuscripts were fraught with difficulties, but he persevered in their examination. Within the mass of manuscripts was one entitled the Divyavadana, a work that relates the various rebirths of the Buddha. Within these folios were themes that were later elevated into immortality in Wagner’s Parsifal, through which he redefined the origins of Christianity.
Burnouf published his great work in 1844. For all of the manuscripts, he is indebted to one man, the one who collected them and sent them to France. ‘Brian Hodgson’ is a name still well known in Orientalist circles as a scholar and facilitator of Orientalist research. So cognisant was Burnouf of his obligation to Hodgson that he proposed his name to the French government for the awarding of the Legion of Honour.
Brian Hodgson was the British Resident at the Court of Nepal, in Kathmandu as the direct result of war. The victory of the East India Company over the Nepali army and the signing of the subsequent Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 had carried behind its diplomatic language the Company’s clear command: you must accept permanently our agent in your territory. The Nepalis acquiesced with ill-disguised loathing. To them the British were phirangi buwasa, or ‘foreign hyenas’; the permanent presence of one of them in the sacred Valley was anathema to the ultra-orthodox Hindus who ruled it.
Hodgson was not a scholar, but one of the young Englishmen who decided in the early 19th century to seek his fortune as an employee of the East India Company. Arriving in Calcutta in his early twenties, he fell ill almost immediately and was sent to the mountain town of Almora to recover. Because of his delicate health, the Company decided that he should remain in the high country. Hodgson arrived in Kathmandu in 1821 and remained there until 1843, during which time he was the official representative of the Company to the Court of Nepal.
But there was little business to transact between the Company and the Nepali government, so Hodgson had little official work. He was not allowed to roam the country at will, but was confined to the Valley. He subsequently redirected his waking hours to scholarly investigations. Nepal the Unknown needed to become known: flora, fauna, geography, commerce, languages, religions, ethnicity, caste – a spate of articles flowed from his pen into the learned journals of Europe. Hodgson’s investigations were those of a novice, of one who knows no other language and who obviously must rely on others. But he wrote seamlessly, objectively, scientifically, as if he were the sole source, only occasionally referring to the system of pundits and scouts that he had developed.
At some point, Hodgson realised that despite the Hindu orthodoxy of Nepal’s rulers, he was also in a country of Buddhists. Buddhism subsequently became the focus of much of his research, in particular its texts. The towns of the Valley bulged with libraries of manuscripts and Hodgson began not only to acquire information, but the books themselves. He located a Buddhist priest who, unlike his experience with much of the rest of the populace, proved both friendly and immensely helpful. Hodgson’s “old Buddhist friend” helped him to locate, copy, trade, buy and record as many manuscripts as he desired. In 1837, Hodgson began shipping these artefacts to London, Paris and Calcutta. Here began the wholesale transference of Buddhist texts out of Nepal. Here, also, the manufacture of European Buddhism was given its first large shipment of raw materials.
Hodgson’s old Buddhist friend is Burnouf’s bouddhiste nepalais, a man whose identity was rarely recorded by Hodgson, but often enough. His name was Amritananda, a Newar priest, famous in his country during his lifetime for having completed the last cantos of Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, one of the earliest and most famous accounts of the life of the Buddha. He was also the author of a Buddhist history of the Nepal Valley. He lived in the city of Patan, in an area known as Mahabauddha; it was out of the countless almyrahs of this city that Burnouf’s manuscripts came. Amritananda and the Newars were a conquered people, oppressed by a Hindu military population from Gorkha. The Newars had nothing in common with the rude soldiers, and their suffering was largely unknown and unrelieved. Amritananda’s acts of friendship and help to Hodgson may have in fact been a subversive plea for recognition – a silent cry of a people in torment. Either way, they were barely understood by the Englishman, if at all.
The parts played in this process by Amritananda, Hodgson and Burnouf embody a transformative ritual that later made Richard Wagner’s ideology possible. It is not that Wagner misused or even misunderstood the Buddhism that resulted from these transformations. Richard Wagner sought to define himself and his culture. For him, Buddhism was a way of answering his three most fundamental questions: What does it mean to be German? What does it mean to be Christian? What is art?
Parsifal, Wagner’s final work, is his answer to these three questions. The answers are inextricably linked, for in this work his revolutionary and political ambitions come together with his art. Parsifal is a ritual meant to define the German community as racially pure; to redefine Christianity through the transformation of the Mass into the celebration of the Holy Grail, thereby redeeming the blood of the Redeemer himself from its negative moment; and to make these changes real through his art at Bayreuth, the German city that houses the Wagner Theatre. The work is his transformation of all values and his eternal recurrence of the same – a transformation that had begun many years before in the atelier of Pundit Amritananda Shakya.
A final note on ritual. On the afternoon of 13 February 1883, in his study in the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice, Richard Wagner felt a stab of pain in his chest and pulled the cord that was there for such occasions. Cosima rushed to his side, but a few minutes later, he died in his wife’s arms.
The cult of Wagner spread over Europe and America in the years after his death. Some years later, a novelist writing at the beginning of the next century recalled the funeral:
The body was there, shut in its crystal coffin, and standing beside it was the woman with the face of snow. The second coffin of burnished metal shone open on the pavement. All were gazing fixedly at the chosen one of Life and Death; an infinite smile illuminated the face of the prostrate hero – a smile as distant and infinite as the rainbow of a glacier, as the gleam of the sea, as the halo of a star. They could not bear to see it, but their hearts, with a wondering fear that made them religious, felt as if they were receiving the revelation of a divine secret …
The great silence was worthy of Him who had transformed the forces of the Universe for man’s worship into infinite song.
The words are those of one of the annunciatory angels of the new century, Gabriele d’Annunzio, one of the prophets of the new fascism. Cosima, the woman with the face of snow, was to live for many years after her husband’s death, and was to hear ‘the infinite song’ that was to nearly destroy Europe.
~ Ted Riccardi is professor emeritus at Columbia University, and author of a novel on Sherlock Holmes. He is currently affiliated with the Social Science Baha in Kathmandu.