Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) never met Rabindranath Tagore, although one would have expected him, more than anybody else, to seek and maintain a contact with the Indian poet. Hesse had been involved with Indian Thought since his childhood. His parents were Protestant Christian missionaries in South India.
His maternal grandfather, Heinrich Gundert, had been a pioneering scholar of the Malayalam language and culture. Hesse, like others in his time, naïvely conceived of India as a country of spiritual perfection and angelic human beings. This romantic notion was bound to be shattered when Hesse set out on his one long trip outside Europe which took him to Sri Lanka and Indonesia in 1911.
He was unable to set foot on mainland India as due to illness his trip had to be cut short. But he witnessed Hindu and Buddhist culture. Hesse was disillusioned with Asia, but then his expectations had not been realistic.
He published his diary notes and returned to his experience again and again in letters, short stories and essays. Slowly, his disappointment transformed itself into a new vision of India which was less idealistic. Formerly, Hesse had believed in the dichotomy of the “spiritual East” and the “materialistic West”. Now he chose to perceive an undercurrent of mysticism in both East and West.He envisioned a spiritual unity encompassing both.
The best-known fruit of Hesse’s Indian experience is his “Indian novel” Siddhartha. When Rabindranath Tagore toured Europe in 1921, Hesse was deeply involved in writing this novel of an Indian spiritual aspirant’s path to fulfilment. He lived in the Ticino mountains in southern Switzerland almost like a hermit. The idea of travelling to Germany or Austria to meet Tagore must have been far from his mind.And yet, Hermann Hesse kept an eye on the intellectual developments of his time.
He reviewed three books by Tagore (Gitanjali, The Gardener and The Home and the World) and expressed his views in several letters. The last letter in which Hesse referred to Tagore is from 1957. Hesse was not fascinated by Tagore to the same degree as Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland and Hermann Keyserling were.
Strangely, Hesse considered Tagore’s writing as too European and not of exceptionally high quality, although he did laud the nobility and dream-like beauty of his texts. Hesse did however fully support Tagore’s novel The Home and the World concluding his review with the words: “…the more people read this book the better.”
In his last letter, Hesse commented on Tagore’s “partial eclipse in the West” after the Second World War. Hesse opined that Tagore had been “a fashion” in the 1920s and now had to pay the price for being out of fashion. Yet,
“in some minds and hearts the effects [of reading Tagore] have lived on and borne fruit, and this ontinuing influence – impersonal, silent and in no way dependent on fame and fashion – may in the final analysis be more appropriate to an Indian sage than fame or personality cults.”
Hermann Hesse: Siddharta. London: P. Owen, 1960.
Vivos Voco (Leipzig), vol. 1, Nov. 1920, p.817.
Hermann Hesse: Preface. In: Later Poems of Tagore. Translated and with an introduction by Aurobindo Bose. Peter Owen, London 1974, p.7.
Dr Martin Kämpchen is a writer on India and a translator of Tagore from Bengali to German. He lives at Santiniketan, India. For more information visit his website www.martin-kaempchen.com.
[Note: This is an excerpt of an article that has previously been published in Parabaas, July 25, 2003.]