Wednesday, December 14, 2011


"And to think that here...
lay the very centre of Buddhistic culture!"


a chapter from

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1925)
by Count Hermann Keyserling.
The author was quoted by Iqbal in 1925.
See bottom of this post for details. 

I have really strayed beyond India. Leafless trees, the cold, clear air of winter - broad, dusty high roads on which men wander about, whose physical type is familiar to me. Curious: between Afghanistan and Russia there lies a whole world. Every district of Central Asia is inhabited by different tribes, possessing differing histories and cultures, with different customs and manners; and yet to-day one psychic atmosphere is spread from the Khyber Pass to the Ural Mountains. In this atmosphere all significance disappears. In Peshawar murders take place daily,and gaily coloured Indian shawls are for sale what does it matter? Everything might just as well not happen at all, or happen differently. The meaning of life here is not changed by one event more or less, by one event of this or of another kind. The camels march one behind the other in long, endless rows. Century follows century in one long, unending sequence. Millions of similar people die rhythmically one after another, sometimes violently, sometimes naturally, all with the stereotyped expression of a shrug of the shoulders.

I am seized by that infinite melancholy for which only the Russians possess the right word: Urrynie. I want nothing, lack nothing, I have no demonstrable reason for it, I am just melancholy. My soul is hollowed out, as it were. This Asia knows no vibrations of a mental kind. The rays which I radiate myself disappear in endless space, but I lack the inner power to arrest them. The result is a feeling of emptiness which makes me profoundly miserable. And then, alien, brutal forces enter into me the thoughts and desires which may dwell in the wild hearts of Afghan cattle-thieves. I can hardly resist them, so suddenly do they assail me. And then I recognise in horror that they are not at all as alien to my inner self as I had thought: in me too there is somewhere, deep down, a crude Central Asiatic, and I curse the air which has let him be wakened from his slumber.

Yet this world contains possibilities for unique greatness. When the storm is let loose over the desert, whole mountains of sand are piled up which roll on like waves. Such storm forces have several times been embodied in men. They were beings without souls or sense, without inward aim or feeling for values; they hardly possessed any human consciousness. But on the other hand, the elemental force of the desert storm was in them. Like grains of sand they drove nations before them, burying cultures under mountains of sand. But if these did not remain, then everything was once more as if nothing had happened, as if their invasion had been an evil dream. These conquerors represent intrinsically non-spiritual powers. But greatness, yes, superhuman greatness, cannot be denied to Attila and Jenghiz Khan.

And to think that here, and not even at such an immeasurable distance of time, lay the very centre of Buddhistic culture! That the Valley of Kabul was the holy land of Mahayana doctrine, longed for by every searcher from the land of the five streams to the Japanese sea, the scene of the blending of the Hellenic and Indian spirits in art, culture and religion, to which all the later developments of the Far East can originally be traced! Central Asia was, for thousands of years, the source of all spiritual influences on earth. But as the waters dried up and the gardens withered to the dust of the desert, the spirit vanished irretrievably from this parched atmosphere, and the extremest forms of barbarism became the heir to the extreme of culture. - My thoughts wander back to my geological days and the way in which I then regarded the world; in the Alps, I beheld the ocean, liquid lava in basalt, and life itself in the rigidity of stone. The archaeologist beholds Central Asia with a similar vision. But, it seems to me, both overlook the really significant factor. This is the change in itself. Anyone who has ever been a farmer knows what 'history' means: one year of culture more or less represents cosmically an absolute entity; it cannot be taken away nor retrieved; such time is real before eternity. For such time creates change. Where growth is guided by conscious volition, development takes place; everything progresses, marches onward, further and further, and no end is in sight. If, for any reason, volition fails, all events change their being. Development diverges, branches off, or even ceases, and the casual takes the place of the rational. Thus the desert follows upon the garden, the wilderness upon culture, lack of all spirit upon spirit, eternal death upon brief life. What folly to believe in a Providence which guides life on earth from outside! Life could, of course, progress in accordance with a high purpose, no principle is opposed to such a course; we men will perhaps one day bring about such a state of affairs. But what happens on earth seems a matter of complete indifference to God. Spirit yesterday, none to-day, to-morrow perhaps spirit again; sometimes garden, sometimes desert, sometimes the primeval forest, sometimes the sea: I dare say He delights in aimless change, as the tired Maharajah delights in the Nautch, so that eternity should not become too tedious for Him.

None the less, it is stimulating to live for a while among such wild fellows as the Afridis. They are magnificent -  like beasts of prey in their primitiveness, their instinctive irresponsibility. The Government does not like to see people going unprotected and without a guide through the bazaars: suddenly one of these gentlemen might dig a dagger between one's ribs, the Government would have to interfere, which, in its wisdom it prefers not to do, because murdering means nothing worse to them than the polite expression of a differing opinion does among us. Could I bear the Afridi a grudge who sought my life? Hardly. At any rate, no more than a tiger. And as I wend my way through the narrow streets, I look out whether I cannot spy the beginnings of a quarrel. These men must look magnificent when fighting. As long as peace reigns, the best in them is asleep, in the same way in which the best sleeps in the Spanish fighting bull while he chews the cud.

All at once I must laugh: the Afridis are the very embodiment of that ideal of supermen to which a fair proportion of our young poets cling! Great men who are cruel because they must be so, who fulfil their destiny although it ruins them whose passion knows no limit who are never led astray by reasonable considerations: yes, indeed, the description befits them. It is droll to think to what manifestations the need for hero-worship leads over-civilised townsmen. Undoubtedly originality is necessary: but is it not possible to conceive a higher kind than that of the animals? It is hardly conceivable that the Athenians who surrounded Plato looked up to Achilles and Diogenes as ideals; it needed the modern decadents to lower the ideal of humanity so much to the animal level; even Nietzsche, the gentle pastor's son, never intended anything of this sort, no matter what he may have said. But to-day we have really reached the stage at which originality and primitiveness in the animal sense appear identified. I am quite prepared, and why not, to honour the candour of the cow; only, I stipulate that she shall not write; this form of expression is only suited to cultured human beings. I refuse in the same way to honour savages as heroes. The Afridis are really the supermen worshipped by our modern literary youth. It amuses me to examine them from this point of view. Formerly it used to be said: he who controls himself is strong. To-day: he who must let himself go. Of course, to anyone who has no passion at all, its mere existence implies an ideal. But it is not true that all modern men are emasculated; only those who write are for the most part in this state, the canaille ecrivante, cabalante el comwlsionnaire of Voltaire, the most unreal people of all, and to-day, it is more fatal than ever that they have so much power. The ideal of the emaciated, the impotent, the weakling, drives healthy individuals into barbarism. Literary cows are magnified, savage churls are honoured as heroes: thus more and more cows begin to write, and more and more men capable of culture become savage. How good it would be for the young men of to-day to imbibe a little Indian wisdom ! To learn that it is a sign of weakness and not of strength if a man has to be cruel, if he succumbs to his fate, if he is not master of his passion, if he is impervious to the considerations of reason, and that not only the superman of the newest, but also the tragic hero of the classical pattern, embodies a barbaric condition! No doubt the modern condition of humanity is not worth much; but the ideal which we should strive after lies in the direction of transfusing life with spirit, not with animality. Not only the cow, but God also, is natural, and we should simulate the latter, not the former. All the more so as we are already much nearer to Him. As I regard these Afridis, I realise very clearly how far their nature is removed from ours. Perhaps it is due to this change of perspective, as opposed to the conditions of antiquity, that the animal seems to us above everything worthy of reverence, just as God seemed to the ancients. . . .
Hermann Alexander Graf Keyserling

The excerpt is from the chapter 'Peshawar' in The Travel Diary of a Philosopher by Count Hermann Keyserling (published in 1925 and available in English translation online: Volume One and Volume Two). 
In his 1925 essay 'Self in the Light of Relativity', Iqbal quoted an excerpt from this book: "The impulse which drives me into the wide world is precisely the same as that which drives so many into monastries - the desire for self-realization... I want to let the climate of the Tropics, the Indian modes of consciousness, the Chinese code of life, and many other factors which I cannot envisage in advance, to work their spell on me, one  after the other, and then watch what will become of me." Iqbal regarded this view of self-realization as one-sided: "The intellectual self is only one aspect of the activity of our total self." 
About the author, the official website of the School of Wisdom founded by him tells us: "Count Keyserling is the first Western thinker to conceive of and promote a planetary culture, beyond nationalism and cultural ethnocentrism, based on recognition of the equal value and validity of non-western cultures and philosophies. He founded the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt, Germany in 1920, based on the original Schools of Wisdom which prospered over two thousand years ago in Northern India under Buddhist rule. Unlike other spiritual leaders of the day, he did not set himself up as a guru, or establish any kind of personality cult. Instead, he encouraged the equal participation of many others." (This last proposition has been  questioned in the light of the private assertions of Rabindranath Tagore, one of the chief beneficiaries of the Count's generosity; for instance. see  the paper by Martin K√§mpchen in Asiatic).


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