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Updated: October 14, 2009 14:37 IST

Not a cult about nothingness

S. PANNEERSELVAM
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This book , originally published in French in 1997, is an interesting study of Buddhism in the context of contemporary western thinkers. Buddhism, which has contributed to the world culture, has influenced the philosophy of religion of India and also Asia in general. It was the Buddha who first suggested the dialectic method, long before Zeno did in the West. During the 19th century, he was a veritable nightmare for Europe and Buddhism was identified with nothingness. For a very long time, it was misconstrued as a religion of annihilation. That perception has since changed and it has come to be seen, correctly, as a religion that preaches compassion, tolerance, and non-violence.

How this change took place is explained by the author, who discusses a number of thinkers including Cousin, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Buddhism, he says, is both therapeutic and pragmatic in its approach. In the 18th century, the Buddha was considered as one of the elements of the primitive world and identified with Mercury of Europe, Thot of the Egypt, and Hermes of the Greek. In France, Buddou was recognised as a philosopher for the first time by Michel-Jean-Francois in 1817.

Significance

The author contends that both Hegel and Schopenhauer understood what Buddhism was after reading the research article of Francis Buchman. Later, in 1829, the French Newspaper Le Globe published an article on Buddhism. It was during this period that Buddhism was seen as a “cult of nothingness.” In the subsequent years, the West began to discuss the identity of Buddha, an area that had remained completely neglected until then.

The works of Jacob Schmidt, Henry Thomas Colebrooke and others have brought out the significance of Buddhism. During 1822-23, Hegel in his course on the ‘Philosophy of History’ dealt with Buddhism and attributed nothingness to it. The author is of the view that Hegel had changed many of his views on India after reading Colebrooke. In 1863, the polemic cult of nothingness reached its peak in France, England, and Germany. In France, Cousin coined the expression “cult of nothingness” to refer to Buddhism. While appreciating the richness and vastness of Indian Philosophy, he pointed out that it was here that all philosophical systems of the world met. In Germany, Schopenhauer, who was influenced by Buddhism, believed in the principles of renunciation, compassion, and negation of the will to live. The view that nothingness is the culmination of true philosophy is expressed in his book, The World as Will and Representation.

Acceptable

Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy, said that “tragedy should save us from Buddhism.” Instead of considering Buddhism to be a possible resource, he saw in it a threat, a danger, and a future that western civilisation ought to attempt to escape. Nietzsche realised that the religion was steadily gaining acceptability across Europe and was thus no longer terrifying to the western mind. In the early 1890s, Buddhism was no longer considered to be a religion of nothingness. The cult of nothingness thus was ending. The author concludes the book by explaining how the cult of nothingness was confused with that of a century that was leading to the time of world wars and the totalitarian barbarity. The book has an exhaustive bibliography of works on Buddhism published in the West during 1638-1890. The author needs to be commended for his excellent analysis and detailed notes and references and the book is certainly a significant contribution to the knowledge on Buddhism.

An interesting study of Buddhism in the context of contemporary western thinkers

THE CULT OF NOTHINGNESS: By Roger-Pol Droit, Translated by David Streight and Pamela Vohnson; Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., PB No 5715, 54, Rani Jhansi Road, New Delhi-110055. Rs. 750.

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