In 1866, the literati of the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi (then a part of the Austrian Empire) was awed by a poem by a 16-year-old student. Dedicated to a dead philologist, the poem titled At the Grave of Arun Pomnul was Mihail Eminovici’s first published work. But what made it impressive was its richness and the depth of its language – more a work of a mature poet than that of a schoolboy. That young man would one day go on to become Romania’s national poet, gaining immense respect and admiration under the Romanian version of his Slavic name – Mihai Eminescu.
Eminescu, who is believed to have had Armenian roots and was raised in the region where Ukraine and Romania meet, was exposed to diverse cultures in his childhood. His horizons were broadened beyond Europe when he moved to Bucharest and became a member of the Orient literary circle.
The interest he cultivated in the East led to him to Vienna, where he began to study the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant. In 1872, he became a student of the great Prussian Indologist Albrecht Weber in Berlin. It was in this city that he developed a fascination for the Sanskrit language – a passion that he would pursue throughout his life. Bitten by the bug, Eminescu translated parts of German Indologist Franz Bopp’s Critical Grammar of Sanskrit Language to Romanian, making it the first source for the ancient language in Romania.
“He studied a kaleidoscope of subjects in Vienna and Berlin, places which would influence his work profoundly,” Romanian-American poet Andreea Iulia Scridon wrote in Wild Court, a journal published by the English Department of King’s College London. “Here, under the influence of Schopenhauer, Schiller and Kant (whom he would be the first to translate into Romanian), Metaphysics would lead him towards Hindu Studies.” Eminescu even translated Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Romanian.
It was during his time in Vienna and Berlin that Eminescu developed the idea to merge elements of Hindu cosmology with Western elements and Romanian folk tales.
“During his Philosophy studies in Vienna and Berlin, Mihai Eminescu, who is considered to be the ‘last great Romantic’ of the world, thoroughly studied the ancient Oriental philosophies,” Romanian scholar Diana Câmpan wrote in a paper titled Sacred Topoi of Mythical India in the Literary Work of Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian National Poet for the Rupkatha Journal. “By far, Indian culture caught his attention through the richness of symbols, through the complexity of fundamental theories on World cosmogony and extinction, the gods’ migration between Earth and Heavens, the codes of human feelings and not least, the geographies of Paradise that were perfect for the Romantic Age escape temptations.”
In Berlin, Eminescu also studied Buddhist texts and became familiar with the Bhagavad Gita. His own writings suggest that he found the greatest amount of resonance with Hindu philosophy. He termed the “Brahman religious belief” as “being closest to the results of modern science”.
Eminescu flourished during a period when there was a convergence of great ideas, writer and translator Amitha Bose wrote. Bose, who translated Eminescu’s works to Bengali and was India’s foremost Romanian language scholar, noted that this was the period when European scholars had access to a “treasure of Asiatic thought” and when scientific discoveries helped people explore the secrets of matter and life.
“The source of Eminescu’s cosmology has long been traced to Indian texts, more precisely with the Hymn of Creation in Rgveda (Rg. X.),” Bose wrote, adding that there was documentary evidence to show that he knew this hymn. “In the poem In Search of Sheherazada (1874) Eminescu sent his hero to India in search of wisdom.”
The Romanian poet never visited India but the country featured prominently in his poetry. One of his most famous poems titled Kamadeva was about the Hindu god of love and desire. The poem came to the attention of Anglophone audiences in the 1970s when young translator Corneliu M Popescu, who tragically died at the age of 18 in an earthquake, published an English version.
“With the balm of lover’s torment
Dreaming thus my soul to heal,
I, to Kama, God of India,
Kamadeva, did appeal.
And he came, the child imperious,
Riding on a cockatoo,
With a winning smile capricious
On his lips of coral hue.
Wings he had, and in his quiver
For his arrow did he keep
Naught but scented poison flowers
From the Ganges wide and deep.
Setting in his bow an arrow,
At my breast he aim did take,
And since then for ever weeping
Do I lie the nights awake.
Thus it was a poisoned flower
Deep within my breast did send
India’s child of purple heavens
And illusions without end.”
Câmpan wrote that some of Eminescu’s poems such as Rugaciunea unui dac (A Dacian’s Prayer) and his most well-known and celebrated work Luceafărul (Lucifer or Evening Star) drew on Vedic cosmogony. The opening stanza of A Dacian’s Prayer demonstrates the Romanian national poet’s closeness to Vedic philosophy:
“When there was no death, nor immortality,
Nor any seeds of light for life’s entity,
There was no today, or tomorrow, yesterday, or forever,
Because life springs from one and everything was together,
When the whole earth, the sky, the air, and sea
Were among those things which had yet to be –
There was only You! So I find myself asking:
Who is this god to whom we are all praying?”
The entire work of Eminescu “has absorbed concepts, myths, archetypes and symbols of deep resonance in traditional Indian culture,” Câmpan wrote. “His fiction too is shot through with topoi borrowed from the theory of avatars, the cycles of life and death, places-refuge of the Nirvana-type, karmic structures, symbols of female and male as a sacred duality, the Manichaeist structure of the world, the complex process of cosmogony or of world extinction.”
A tormented life
Now a celebrated poet whose works have been translated into more than 70 languages, Eminescu faced inner struggles even as he tried to decipher the meaning of existence. Although his poems reached out to a large number of Romanian speakers, he was only able to publish one volume of verse in his lifetime – Poezii (Poetry) – in 1883. Eminescu made his living from an editorial position at a Romanian newspaper.
“In 1883, he suffered a mental breakdown, which punctuated by periods of lucidity lasted until his death,” the UNESCO Courier magazine wrote in a feature in 1989.
Even at a time of deep physical and mental distress, Eminescu continued to write poems. Kamadeva was written in 1887, four years after he was first diagnosed with mental health problems. His love poetry in that period became “the expression of unrelieved solitude and suffering,” according to the UNESCO Courier.
While undergoing treatment for syphilis in 1889, he was injected with mercuric chloride and died as a result. He was 39.
His legacy is celebrated across Romania and in the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, where he was raised. During the Cold War, scholars like Amitha Bose, who lived in Bucharest, and Romanian Indologist Sergiu Al-George wrote in detail about the Indian influence on Eminescu. Now, as Romania continues its integration with Western Europe, the only time the national poet’s affinity towards India is mentioned is when there is a bilateral diplomatic event between Bucharest and New Delhi. Newer articles on the poet, aimed at a Western audience, often fail to make even a passing mention of Hindu philosophy or cosmology. Eminescu, through his beautiful works of poetry, was essentially a medium of Indian philosophical thought in Romania. Yet his work had a distinct cultural flavour of the Eastern European nation – something that only Romanian speakers can fully appreciate.
The final two stanzas of A Dacian’s Prayer almost seem like a Romanian and partly Christianised version of Kunti from the Mahabharata asking for misery from God:
Let me die a stranger, alone in banishment,
Let them throw my worthless corpse wherever they want.
Let the dogs rip out my heart, and to the man who incites them,
To him, Father, - give a golden diadem.
But the one who would stone my face to disfigure me,
On him, Lord, take pity. Let him live eternally.
And only then can I thank you, dear Father,
For allowing me the chance to live on this sphere.
But I’m not going to kneel and plead for gifts from you,
Just hatred and curses are what I really beg of you,
And to feel that in your breath my own breath will cease,
Then vanish in eternal emptiness, without trace!
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.