culture, literature

Transnational Epics: How an Indian Epic Became Popular in 19th-Century Germany

There is an inherent interconnectivity between epic literature and cultural identity.

Nationals epics typically have their roots in an oral tradition, painting a romanticized portrait of the distant past. This rose-tinted view of cultural history leads to a skewed sense of identity–a perception of an original and “pure” society, untainted by outside cultures.

It is not uncommon for nations to go through periodic cultural crises. Perceptions of cultural “voids” wax and wane across generations, and people often reflect on idealized notions of better, more culturally-grounded times; anyone familiar with recent politics should have some familiarity with this concept. But these voids don’t always lead only to political movements. Often, it is the arts most impacted by a massive cultural flux or backlash.

The most straightforward example of this is Romanticism. With the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment came the keen sting of modernity. Amidst growing cities, Romantics saw value in the simplicity of a more simple lifestyle. Amidst the growing influence of logic and science, they valued emotion as an aesthetic experience. And, amidst ever-advancing technology, they looked to the past for artistic inspiration.

Epic literature and oral tradition was of particular interest to Romantics. Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us” laments a lost simplicity, associated in the poem with pagan ideals and Grecian/Roman gods. Paintings like The Lady of Shalot by John William Waterhouse hearkened back to Arthurian legend. Robert Burns adapted the famous “Auld Lang Syne” from a much older oral tradition. Wagner’s operas were adapted from what is widely accepted as the German national epic, Das Nibelungenlied. The list goes on.

The politics of the Romantic era are complex—scholars have variously analyzed both liberal and conservative elements in a wide range of works. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the bizarre relationship between Romanticism and rising nationalism, and how these two ideologies created the “perfect storm” for an Indian epic to achieve insane popularity in nineteenth-century Germany.

In response to increasing British influence, the ninteenth century saw a boom in Indian nationalism. Older literary works began to be glorified as remnants of the “real” India, one uncontaminated by British influence. Over time, Indian epics like the Mahabharata came to provide a cornerstone for many common themes upon which different Indian authors have drawn.

Meanwhile, Sturm und Drang and the subsequent Romantic movement in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany saw the idealization of the “noble savage.” For the first time in a thousand years, European paganism was glorified, and epic works depicting ancient heroes and dead gods took the center stage.

From there, the adoption by Germans of the Indian epic Mahabharata happened with relative ease. Perhaps perceived similarities between Germanic paganism and Hindu ideals helped the process along. In the story “Shakuntala,” affinity for nature and a fondness for animals feature prominently. In ancient German tales, these qualities were glorified as bringing one closer to the gods. Similarly, the rite of Gandharva, performed by Shakuntala and Dushyanta as a form of marital ceremony, includes an exchange of symbolic floral garlands between the bride and groom. This resembles known documentation of old Germanic wedding rituals, which often included the wearing of a floral wedding crown by the bride and possibly the groom as well.

The Mahabharata, which contains the story of Shakuntala

 Connections can also be made between “Shakuntala” and Germany’s non-pagan oral tradition. The portrayal of Shakuntala as a beautiful and innocent maiden, isolated away from the corruption of the world, correlates directly with similar themes found in Germanic folklore. Take, for example, the fairy tale “Little Brier-Rose,” in which a beautiful baby girl, born into royalty, is hidden away in her parents’ castle to keep her safe.

Curses also play a prominent role in both Indian and German epics. In “Shakuntala,” the titular character has her marriage cursed by the Sage Durvasa, who is then unable to lift the curse because “a curse, once uttered, cannot be recalled in full.” Thus, he must make a small amendment to the curse—that it shall be lifted whenever Dushyanta sees the ring—in order to make things more bearable for Shakuntala. Likewise, in “Little Brier-Rose,” the princess is cursed by one of the wise women to die by pricking her finger upon a spindle when she turned fifteen. One of the other wise women does her best to alleviate the curse, but she is “unable to undo the wicked wish, only to soften it,” and so the princess falls into a hundred year sleep instead.

 While these similarities offer some insight into how “Shakuntala” might have appealed to the German people, they do not explain the rise in popularity of the tale as opposed to other similar stories from around the world.

To address this, it is necessary to look at how India was perceived by the western world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his in-depth analysis of nineteenth-century German poetry, Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi offered insight into the general mindset of German intellectuals at the time. He describes how they “adhered to the image of the unchanging nature of Asian civilizations” and viewed India as representative of “the childhood of humanity, an age of innocence, religiosity and closeness to nature.” Through the Romantic lens, India appeared as a world frozen in time.

Thus, India was thought to offer a window into what life might have been, had Germany remained unchanged from the times in which its epics were written and oral traditions began. India came to represent a tangible experience of a more spiritual and less materialistic lifestyle, something that was viewed as impossible to achieve in contemporary Christian Germany. This assessment fueled much of the fantasy of German romanticism, while conveniently allowing for spirituality and simplicity to function as a temporary escape rather than a permanent lifestyle. India also held the additional appeal as what Germans saw as a successful example of remaining connected with one’s roots.

Whereas German oral tradition and epic poetry offered a faint and distance glimpse into a culture long lost, the story of “Shakuntala” represented a culture that was perceived as being consistent and extant. Although India was perceived as generally “exotic” to Western eyes, the story bore enough resemblance to German legends and folklore to feel familiar and relatable to the average reader. These similarities also helped to paint the illusion of India as a window into a German past rather than a distinct and unique culture in its own right.

 Ultimately, “Shakuntala” functioned to fill a German cultural void in a number of ways. In the face of rapid industrialization and socioeconomic change during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it offered new but familiar material for fantasy and romantic escapism in the German population. The illusion of a consistent and eternal India that came to be associated with “Shakuntala” served as an example of the ideal and “pure” culture many Germans thinkers wished they could attain.

The reality, of course, was very different. The German view of India during the romantic period was overly-simplistic to say the least, and undoubtedly rooted in colonialism. While the popularity of the story within Germany has varied since the nineteenth century, it has remained straddled across unlikely cultural boundaries. No doubt such an exchange had the potential to lead to a greater understanding between cultures; instead, it was viewed through a very misguided lens. One hopes that in the future, epic literature across cultural boundaries can serve to educate as well as entertain. 

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