An Indic Reading of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Part II

Knowledge is not merely to be read or heard as words; on the contrary, it is to be lived, experienced and thus renewed.

An Indic Reading of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Part II

This is the second part of the series of articles that I had started writing on Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The idea for this series had occurred to me while re-reading the great German philosophy classic in late May 2018, subsequent to which I started working on these articles with a mind to bring out certain points raised in Thus Spoke, which I – a veritable Indic reader-in-the-making without any pretension of objectivity – found to be in agreement (in its general outlook) with the Vedantic schools of thought. Also, next year’s June is going to mark the golden jubilee anniversary of the publication of Hollingdale’s English translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is what my I have referred to for my little inquiry here. Hollingdale’s is a fairly trustworthy translation as far as reviews on the text are concerned, and this has been the chief reason why I chose his translation over others, discarding even those which came out in more recent years. Let this multi-part series, in its own little way, mark the beginning of the celebrations surrounding a paradigmatic text’s rebirth by means of breathing life into it, or rather, second life, through its translated incarnation.

Speaking of the lives of texts, it should be noted that in this series we are reading, Thus Spoke Zarathustra together with a few ancient Indian (or, better still, Indic – for what is ancient and what modern, in the context of the Sanatana texts which guide us to the Eternal Truth?) texts which are central to Indic thought in general. In particular, these Indian texts can be said to be representative of the core of Hindu culture and traditions, for it is in those texts where the Hindu Mind has found its most profound and yet the most direct, unambiguous expression. I am, of course, referring to the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā and the principal Upanishads (as picked by the Great Masters of the various sub-schools within Vedanta darśana), which together constitute two of the three points of departure – the prasthāna-trayī – for Vedantic inquiry. Compared to the hoary lives of these texts, Thus Spoke is of course a much younger entrant into the conversation; and yet we have little to do with their diachronic development in the articles of the present series. We will rather focus wholly on the thematic semblances between these old texts and new, referring to form as well from time to time. The central problems of human existence comprise the chief subject of all these texts, and we wish to confine our concerns within the same. In other words, neither the historicity of the texts nor even their historiography will come into focus in these passages. This point should be kept in mind throughout if we are to do justice to the exercise we have embarked upon.

Another crucial point to be remembered while reading these articles is: the Indic texts are inextricably accompanied with the ancient and modern – but all ‘speaking’ in the same true Sanatana Dharmic vein – interpreters of the Indic texts. These include men like Adi Shankaracharya, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. We will frequently refer to their commentaries while dealing with these Indic texts.     

But let me start this part by first addressing some criticism levied on the contents of the previous part. It is important that we attend to these criticisms, centred as they are on the definition of Western Philosophy, as this will help us understand what philosophy is all about, and what it is most certainly not. That distinction is crucial to the Indic reader’s understanding of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in his own way.

A kind reader of Pragyata, who appears to have been a student of philosophy at some Canadian university at some point of time, has objected to my identification of some elements of Western philosophical thought as firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. In the first of the articles in this series, I had made the following claim: “Nietzsche’s is the first systematic bold rejection of the fundamental tenets of the dogmatic framework of Judeo-Christian thought in all Western philosophy. Despite his infamous proclamation of the “death of God”, his works are hardly atheistic; in fact they are the first step towards a sound understanding of spirituality and man’s true nature.” However, in my critic’s understanding/opinion, no trace of any “Judeo-Christian framework” can ever be found anywhere in the corpus of Western Philosophy. Instead, he holds that anything which has to do with Christian theology within the philosophical canon of the West is “revelation interfering with the thought tradition of the West”. In other words, he thinks that the Judeo-Christian elements to be found in Western thought are not to be considered as philosophy at all. It seems that, given a chance, my critic would like to sift out some sort of “unadulterated philosophy”, which is supposed to consist of the purely intellectual, free from theological speculations and/or what he chooses to describe as “revelation”. We would be rather happy if that had really been the case, but it is easy to demonstrate that this critic’s opinions on Western Philosophy is wishful thinking.         

What he had labelled as “revelation interfering with the thought tradition of the West” has been regarded as the “greatest scholastic philosophy” (Russell 1961: 444) by champions of the deterministic, positivistic brand of Western philosophy. If there really was no admixture of Judeo-Christian thinking with mainstream, “rationalistic” and/or empirical strains of Western Philosophy, then why would St. Thomas Aquinas’s work Summa contra Gentiles, whose sole purpose is to establish the truth of Christianity, be regarded as the most important work of medieval philosophy by such historians of western philosophy as Bertrand Russell? More importantly, why would the Summa contra appeal to the authority of Aristotle to vindicate its position, if it had not regarded the latter as an ally in championing the cause of faith? These two factual observations, taken from the very core of Western philosophical canon – together with the centrality of figures like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo in medieval Europe’s philosophical engagements – go on to demonstrate a reciprocal relationship of interdependence that has always existed between classical Greek Philosophy and ‘mainstream’ Continental Philosophy. The two medieval theologians I have mentioned above acted as a bridge between the philosophical thinking of the classical period and that of the Enlightenment era. No careful and perceptive student of Western Philosophy would in their right mind suggest.

Therefore the only response to the critic’s claim about ‘revelation’ and ‘thought’ being considered as separate watertight categories in Western Philosophy can be that it is merely an opinion, that too a poorly formed one, whereas post-Frege/Wittgenstein philosophers hail St. Thomas Aquinas in the following manner: “St Thomas, therefore, is not only of historical interest, but is a living influence, like Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel – more in fact, than the latter two” (Russell). This comes from no less a man than Bertrand Russell himself, who always stressed on logic and even went so far as to claim that mathematics and language can be broken down to a number of independent units, which he called ‘atoms’ and which when combined with one another can construct all of reality. This worldview has shaped what we today know as ‘analytic philosophy’, which is also the current “mainstream” way of doing philosophy. The aforementioned statement by Russell should be enough to fathom how integral the Judeo-Christian framework is to Western Philosophy.   

In fact, even Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s going-down (or Untergehen) can be compared to Moses’s descent or coming down from the mountain with the tablet containing the Ten Commandments after a long hiatus from life in society. We will have more to talk about Untergehen later in this article; for the time being let me mention in passing how this concept, which is so frequently used by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke, becomes relevant in the discussions on the penetration of Judeo-Christian thought into Western Philosophy. The trope of climbing a mountain (going-up), obtaining God’s orders/enlightenment/prophethood there and then climbing down to share or deliver the message with or to mankind is ubiquitous across all three Abrahamic religions. It is only after Moses climbs a mountain (Mount Sinai) that he receives the Ten Commandments there from the God of Israel, however inadvertently. God reveals himself to this great prophet of Judaism on top of a mountain, and then Moses finds himself to be the chosen one who must deliver the commandments of this God of the Old Testament to his people: the commoners, the unwitting savages. Here we find Moses becoming something more than his fellow Israelites, something more than human; much in the same fashion as Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra himself gets transformed and prophesies the same transformation for the rest of mankind. Again, in the New Testament too, the Transfiguration of Jesus takes place on top of a mountain which the great prophet of Christianity had climbed in order to pray. Islam’s great prophet had likewise received the revelation of the Quran from Jibrail in a cave located on the mountain Jabal an-Nour. It is also noteworthy that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra used to live in a cave[1] during his decade-long stay in the mountains, at the end of which he would have a change of heart and then he would begin his journey down the mountain, to be back among the unenlightened masses and reveal to them his Wisdom. The structure of Nietzsche’s narrative has clearly been fashioned after the similar narratives of a prophet climbing up a mountain–>finding revelation–>then climbing down to preach it found in all three the holy books of the Abrahamic religious traditions. This is one aspect of the long-standing Western thought-tradition, typically expounded through storytelling, from which even as iconoclastic a thinker as Nietzsche didn’t choose to break away.      

Enough on criticisms; let us now get back to our real business, which is to read the text, in the very biased and yet immensely uplifting Indic way.  

One of the most compelling reasons that an Indic reader – who is living inside the time-space constraints so thoroughly conditioned by the strong winds of Western universalism – must engage with Thus Spoke Zarathustra is that its writer understood philosophy differently than most other philosophers of his time, as well as those who came before and after him. Here I have used the terms ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ as it is understood and explained by the Western Mind, only to show how Nietzsche differed from that tradition of understanding and explaining those two terms. Now, apart from translating Nietzsche’s German text so lucidly, Hollingdale has graced us with a brilliantly insightful introduction to the text as well. Here, at the beginning of the second section of his introduction, Hollingdale refers to one of Nietzsche’s posthumously published notes. It reads thus:

As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to be the victim of the same passion!

I want to awaken the greatest mistrust of myself: I speak only of things I have experienced and do not offer only events in the head.

One must want to experience the great problems with one’s body and one’s soul.

I have at all times written my writings with my whole heart and soul: I do not know what purely intellectual problems are.

You know these things as thoughts, but your thoughts are not your experiences, they are an echo and after-effect of your experiences: as when your room trembles when a carriage goes past. I however am sitting in the carriage, and often I am the carriage itself.  

Those lines above, my friend, are screaming out the most glaring disparities that exist between philosophy (a product of the West) and darśana (an Indic device that we, in our profound ignorance, often translate as ‘philosophy’ in English). In essence, Nietzsche denounces the western product called ‘philosophy’ through those remarks in his notes, and embraces what the Indic rishis have tagged ‘darśana’ – a word which derives from the root dṛś, ‘to see’, making darśana mean seeing: which is the quintessence of experience, a word that Nietzsche repeats as many as four times in those seven sentences quoted above. Same has been emphasised upon by Swami Vivekananda:

“We may talk and reason all our lives, but we shall not understand a word of truth, until we experience it ourselves.”    

While reading Thus Spoke, the careful reader would notice that a concept keeps coming back throughout the entire text: the concept of Untergehen. Hollingdale has annotated the concept at its first appearance. I quote his comments on it in full:

Untergehen has three meanings: to descend or go down; to set (as of the sun); and to be destroyed or to go under. There is much play upon this triple meaning throughout the book. The noun Untergang is treated in a similar way.

The word Untergang translates to English as decline, downfall, destruction, or doom. Often the twin ideas of Untergang and Untergehen are used interchangeably by Nietzsche. He refers to these concepts in the context of a prophesied dissolution of man, and the rise of the Ubermansch or the Superhuman in its place. The Indic reader reads this as the dissolution of the Ego (with a Capital ‘E’) or the I-ness that stands between what Sri Ramakrishna used to describe as the “Petty Me” (chhoto aami) and the “Great Me” (bawro aami). Nietzsche’s concept of ‘down-going’ of man in order to make way for the rise of the Superman does not echo the kind of racially supremacist prophesy that the Nazis perversely interpreted. The last thing Nietzsche would be bothered about is the rise of a more formidable order of the human species gloating in all their faults: he worried himself precisely with how to rid mankind of those petty cravings for power on the material dimension. The ‘downfall’ he talks about in Thus Spoke is nothing but the sacrifice of the mediocrity that is man. Since the label ‘man’ has so far been associated with this mediocre creature who gets too easily enchanted and preoccupied with ephemeral belongings, entitlements and positions, Nietzsche had to invent a different label for the new creature who would rise from the ashes of the old: that label is Superman. He is more occupied with the ethical-moral dimension of ‘being’ than anything else, and yet this ethical-moral framework encompasses the expanse of ‘being’ in its widest possible range, it fathoms the deepest depths of ‘being’. For Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaims in the clearest of words what Superman really is:

“I want to teach men the meaning of their existence: which is the Superman, the lightning from the dark cloud man.”

Therefore, ‘Superman’ is no race that would take over our species as it stands in its present form, rather it is our realisation of the “meaning of existence”. It is, in other words, āstikya-buddhi(‘asti’ which derives from the root ‘sat’, connotes pure existence), which is exactly how Adi Shankaracharya defined the elusive and untranslatable Indic term ‘śraddhā’. For more on śraddhā, you may refer to this article I had written on the Kathopanishad.    

Undoing of the Abrahamic conception of God in the most definitive way takes place in the chapter titled “Of the Afterworldsmen” in Part I of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Here Nietzsche highlights the Egoistic characteristic of the Abrahamic God, who is nothing but a human entity multiplied thousandfold with all its pettiness and malice and minus its mortality, thus vindicating the kind of Indic reading that we mentioned in the last paragraph. But even before he goes into it, Nietzsche makes Zarathustra boldly declare:

“On my honour, friend…all you have spoken of does not exist: there is no Devil and no Hell.”

This takes away one third of the universe of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic cosmology. By the time he comes to talk about the ‘Afterworldsmen’, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra brings more directness and clarity in his speech:

“Ah, brothers, this God which I created was human work and human madness, like all gods!”

Which is this God that he is specifically referring to? Let us hear it straight from the horse’s mouth:

“He was human, and only a poor piece of man and Ego: this phantom came to me from my own fire and ashes, that is the truth! It did not come to me from the ‘beyond’!”

We get the affirmation that this God is a construct, a human construct; and this statement comes, through a typical Nietzschean, incisive irony, where an inversion of the Biblical assertion that “God made man in His own image” takes place. Here, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaims that it was man who constructed God in his own image – with all his follies and all his mediocrities – and not the other way round. It is from here that Nietzsche comes wonderfully close to the indigenous knowledge systems of the world, and especially those arts that were developed, refined and codified on the Indian soil, where they rely on the body, where knowledge is not merely to be read or heard as words; on the contrary, it is to be lived, experienced and thus renewed. It is embodied knowledge, like that of the Natyashastric arts which are learnt, nay transferred from the Guru to the disciple through direct contact. No other pedagogical method could facilitate the learning of such practical arts. No amount of intellectualisation and theorisation would be enough. Experience alone – only lived, raw experience – could give a glimpse of that Kingdom of Light that lies beyond the door. And the body is the door. A body should be despised by us only to the extent that a door could be despised after it has ceased to be useful for us, after we have made the exit (or entry, whichever way one wants to look at it) through it. Hence, in the Indic way of understanding things, there is no despising the body.   

More on this in the next part…   


References / Footnotes

[1] “You have come up here to my cave…”: Zarathustra speaking to the sun; p. 39; Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Tr. by R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin 2003);

About Author: Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at: Email: sreejit.datta@gmail.com Blogs: https://medium.com/@SreejitDatta http://chadpur.blogspot.in/

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