It is widely considered that nationalism, as an ethos, is the brainchild of the West and branched into the rest of the world from its origins in Europe. Though this is mostly true, German Nationalism as it began through the work of the German Romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries makes for an important exception to this theory. The ideas of nationalism here trace their intellectual and philosophical underpinnings to India, and envisioned Germany as the “true oriental self” of Europe.

Much like Indian nationalism, the German variety also grew as a reaction to political and cultural domination by the great colonial powers of the West, Britain and France. While early Indian nationalists looked towards their own religion, myth, and philosophy, the Germans looked towards Indian philosophy and culture as the antidote to the pervasive materialism of the West’s philosophies as epitomised by France. Indian nationalism, in turn, received much nourishment from the German interpretation of Indian philosophy and culture, giving it European allies at a time when they were as influential as hard to come by.

These developments in parallel of the nationalisms in Germany and India can be best seen through the prism of the writings of Friedrich Von Schlegel, poet, philosopher, philologist, and a pioneer of Jena Romanticism – the first wave of Romanticism in Germany, and a precursor to their notions of Nationalism. March 10 marks his 249th birth anniversary, but his work especially as an Indologist continues to have a profound influence on the Hindutva brand of nationalism which has the Indian imagination firmly in its grip.

What Schlegel suggested

Schlegel studied Sanskrit for over forty years, under the tutelage of, among others, Antoine-Léonard de Chézy and Alexander Hamilton – the earliest scholars of Sanskrit amongst Europeans. A pioneer of comparative linguistics, he was amongst the first to point out the grammatical and syntactical similarities between Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages, and hypothesised Sanskrit as the ancient progenitor of this family of languages. In 1808 he published Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India), a hugely influential book where he first argued that a people from India (the prototypical “Aryans”) had founded the ancient European civilisations

On the basis of Sanskrit as a mother language and migrations out of India, Schlegel explained the preponderance of disparate European culture and languages as offshoots of a degrading unified Aryan culture. In 1819, he published the first theory linking the Indo-Iranian and German languages under the Aryan group, and theorised that the word “arya” had been what the Indo-Europeans called themselves, meaning, according to Schlegel, something like “the honorable people”.

This came at a time when Indian nationalists were also formulating remarkably similar theories about the Indian origins of the Aryans based on evidence from Hindu religious texts. Needless to say, Schlegel’s work was seen as a useful influence.

For example, Schlegel’s “testimony” arguing for “Hindustan holding [sic] the first rank in time” in terms of cultures with indigenous philosophy and metaphysics, appears in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj written well over half a century later. Similarly, Tilak’s theory of the Aryan homeland in India and the Aryans’ migration from India outwards drew upon arguments similar to those made by Schlegel, as did the works of Aurobindo Ghosh and Dayanand Saraswati, who also popularised the version of Aryan history found in Schlegel’s works.

Why Schlegel is welcomed in India

This is not to say that Schlegel’s works are relevant only to the early history of Indian nationalism. In fact, his writings about Aryan migration from India westwards, known contemporarily as “Indigenous Aryanism”, still forms one of the most contentious points of debate between Hindutva indigenists and mainstream scholarship on the ancient history of India. Indigenous Aryanism, also known as the “Out of India” theory, is contrasted with the widely accepted scholarship on the “Indo-Aryan Migration theory”, which considers the Pontic steppe to be the area of origin of the Indo-European languages.

Indigenists’ arguments, based on evidence from Puranic versions of history, a rejection of newfound genetic evidence, and literal interpretations of the Rg Veda amongst other arguments, reject the migration theory in favour of an interpretation strikingly similar to Schlegel’s, where Sanskrit is the mother of all Indo-European languages, Indo-Iranian Aryans the forefathers of their Western counterparts, and an unbroken Vedic culture from the Harappan civilisation to the present as pan-Indian history.

Indigenist scholars also characterise the Indo-Aryan migration models (previously known as Indo-Aryan invasion models) as colonial scholarship designed to show the supremacy of the white races over their darker skinned Indian counterparts.

However, a towering amount of evidence exists in favour of the migration models, while Indigenous Aryanism is considered a “religio-nationalistic” view of history not even relevant to mainstream scholarship. At the time of Schlegel’s writing Rg Vedic Sanskrit was genuinely the oldest example of Indo-European languages known to mankind, but since then Sanskrit has been displaced from this chronological position of privilege. Similarly, Schlegel’s initial observations about the similarities between Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages have been accepted in linguistics with significant revisions to the original hypothesis.

Studying Schlegel is important

Nevertheless the indigenist version of history is still touted by right-wing academics as well as proponents of Hindutva, as it is in tune with the notion of an undisturbed ancient Hindu identity for Indians. Based on models of “blood and soil”, the Hindutva version of India demands a history where Hindus can be seen as the “original” inhibitors of all of India, and a unified Vedic culture as a pan-Indian cultural ethos extending as far as the Indus Valley Civilisation in time. Similarly, a Hindu supremacist ideology sits well in tune with the assertions of the Out of India model, regardless of its rejection in mainstream academic circles.

Therefore, Hindutva proponents such as Golwalkar and Savarkar propagated these theories with gusto even before independence. A current trend of disregard for science and scholarship has seen a dissemination of reimagined revisionist histories of India such as the one that the German nationalists saw under the work of the Romantics such as Schlegel.

Therefore, a timely and cautious study of the works of Schlegel in our time holds great promise to understand the present developments in this debate within the context of Indian and German nationalism since the nineteenth century onwards. The untrammelled march of German nationalism from the Romantics up to the Third Reich shows the grave dangers of privileging stories over facts. A study of Schlegel and the past, in this respect, can help us avoid the worst of this brand of nationalism while appreciating its best elements.