Cowan, Robert. The Indo-German Identification. Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies 1765-1885.
As the title accurately indicates, Robert Cowan's book offers in carefully researched detail a survey of the various debates in Germany about identity and origins as these relate to South Asia. The scope of the book seems at first to be too ambitious, beginning as it does with the year 425 B.C.E. and ending in the year 2004. The date 425 B.C.E. provides, however, a useful backdrop to later German interest in South Asia, connecting the ancient Brahmins and the early Germanic tribes described by Megasthenes, Arrian, Philostratus, and Tacitus. Cowan's primary, pragmatic focus is on the 19th and the 20th centuries. He summarizes the creation of various Indo-German encounters, either imagined or textually mediated by translators, encounters that intellectuals such as Voltaire, Herder, Hegel, the German Romantics, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche fashioned for themselves. He illuminates the deeply personal concerns and struggles that these men experienced in trying to sculpt their worlds. Herein lies the strength of Cowan's book and its place in German studies.
Postcolonial critics have typically understood the use of South Asia by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries within the exploitative frame of Orientalism. Other scholars insist that Germany not be included in the discourse on Orientalism because of its late entry into the scramble for colonies and its very short-lived role as colonizer. There are also those who argue that German intellectuals, especially the Romantics, were more inclined to adopt an apolitical, anti-imperialist position toward South Asia, either because of Germany's weakened political condition, or because of the Germans' conviction that their moral superiority would not merely compensate for their political impotence, but would situate them above and beyond the need for political clout. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, when postcolonial studies have reached new levels of self-reflection in their endeavors to undo, realign, and redraw colonialism's conditional boundaries, my own postcolonial training initially forced me to question the subtext of Cowan's assertion that one should attempt to understand ideas in their proper contexts, on their own terms, and to respect them (191), in opposition to my own conviction that South Asia is incontrovertibly a colonized space. However, he states that he has discovered yet another approach to the German intellectuals' encounter with South Asia in the personal side to each of these men that drove them to imagine their South Asian origins in a way that was simultaneously "conscious and inadvertent" (7). These epithets point to Cowan's unequivocal interest in unifying the German intellectuals he discusses by using "South Asia" and "Indo-Germans" as monikers not for a European-South Asian debate, but rather for describing intensely personal inner journeys of discovery within an exclusively European context.
The three main chapters concentrate on the years 1765 through 1885, and an epilogue touches upon the period 1885-2004. Two statements that underscore Cowan's interpretive location parenthesize the narrative: "History is personal" (7) and "Truth transcends history" (186; Cowan quotes Mahatma Gandhi here). Arguing that it is simplistic to assume one homogenous "Orientalist" history, Cowan proceeds to describe how intellectuals reconciled the realities of life in Germany with their imagined South Asian origins.
In the first chapter, Cowan brings to the over-discussed opposition between the German Enlightenment and the Romantics a sense of urgency that is refreshing. He brings more notable textual evidence to confirm Herder's single-minded nationalism and Fichte's idealism that was to influence German thinkers into the twenty-first century and ultimately ended in the inhumanity of Nazism.
Despite the wealth of literature documenting Novalis's and Schelling's interest in Hinduism, Cowan's discussion in the second chapter of their appreciation of this religion as a precursor of Christianity reinvigorates a sadly flagging interest in this important chapter of German intellectual history. His comment that Novalis sees in the play "Shakuntala" by the Indic playwright Kalidasa a prefiguration of Christ-like innocence adds yet another layer to previous readings. Both Novalis and Schelling attempt, as Cowan lucidly argues, to restore the link between South Asia and Europe by using Hindu philosophy to attain a greater unity than the restrictive European thought would otherwise allow.
Cowan brings a fresh perspective on Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as well, discussing how they "embrace the negation of accepted value systems in distinctly different ways" (174). I found Cowan's recognition that Nietzsche fails to reconcile the cyclical nature of South Asian philosophy with the linearity of European thought especially useful in rethinking German discursive patterns.
The wealth of information that Cowan provides about the personal philosophies of German intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries will undoubtedly prove very useful especially to those still unfamiliar with this area of knowledge.
KAMAKSHI P. MURTI
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|Author:||Murti, Kamakshi P.|
|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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