Literature (2019 | Issue 2)

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India and Germany share a uniquely close relationship. They have mutual respect for each other and a strong partnership. Germans have always had a deep interest in Indian culture and have explored India’s literature, spirituality and philosophy for centuries. What’s Up, Germany? delves into the history of Indo-German literary ties.

The fact that the term Indo-Germanic (Indogermanisch) was coined way back in 1823 comes as no surprise. That’s how far back we go! German and Sanskrit are said to have common origins. German missionaries were the ones who started to do extensive research in Sanskrit. Heinrich Roth was among the first Europeans to learn the language and went on to write a Sanskrit grammar book in Latin in 1660. Also a missionary, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg settled in Tranquebar and translated many religious texts into Tamil. He even came out with a Tamil-German dictionary more than 300 years ago! Dr Hermann Gundert, another missionary scholar, translated the Bible into Malayalam and compiled a bilingual dictionary in 1872. He was German novelist Hermann Hesse’s grandfather!

The Call of India

Prominent German scholars and Romantics like Max Müller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel regarded India as an ideal. They dipped into its ancient wisdom by studying scriptures like the Rig Veda, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Wilhelm von Humboldt even gave lectures on the Bhagavad Gita! This interest led to the foundation of Indology and linguistics. In 1819, the first chair of Indology was created at the University of Bonn with August Wilhelm Schlegel in charge. His younger brother, Friedrich, described Sanskrit as “truly the source of all languages, of all thoughts and poems of the human intellect; each and everything goes back to India without exception”. Max Müller, probably one of the most well-known Indologists, contributed a great deal through his writings and translations. From 1860 onwards, many German universities had added Indology courses to their curriculum. Even today, 14 top German universities teach Sanskrit! That’s how important IndoGerman literary ties are!

Epic Considerations

The book that took Germany and Europe by storm was the poet Kalidasa’s 5th-century play, Abhijnanasakuntalam. This tale of love and separation was translated from Sanskrit into English by the British scholar Sir William Jones in 1789. The travel writer Johann Georg Forster translated the English version into German, profoundly affecting the literary and artistic Romantic movement. Herder regarded Abhijnanasakuntalam as a masterpiece that appears once every 2,000 years! Goethe was so enchanted by the play, he adapted it for the German stage and used it as a source for his prologue in Faust. He was convinced that if heaven and earth combined in one name, that name would be Shakuntala!

German stage and used it as a source for his prologue in Faust. He was convinced that if heaven and earth combined in one name, that name would be Shakuntala!

Of Myths and Folktales

Indian folktales also greatly influenced Germany. Around 1907, Julius Dutoit began translating the Jatakas, a collection of ancient tales about the past lives of the Buddha. Many resemble Grimm’s fairy tales in their moral messages. Likewise, the Indian animal fables, the Panchatantra, became one of India’s biggest literary exports! These 3rd-century stories spread across the world and influenced storytelling traditions. Today, there are supposed to be more than 200 versions of the Panchatantra in 50 countries!

Indian Inspiration

Many prominent German authors continued to bring Indian culture to Germany. Nobel laureate in literature Hermann Hesse was influenced by Buddhism and penned the spiritual novel Siddhartha (1922). Thomas Mann, author of the classic Buddenbrooks, was fascinated by Indian mythology and scripture. His 1940 novel, Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legende (The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India), explores the relationship between the body, mind and spirit. During his five-month stay in Kolkata, Günter Grass wrote the travel diary, Zunge zeigen (1988, Show Your Tongue). He even drew the sketch for the book cover himself, which depicts the Goddess Kali.