In terms of the sheer number of words, the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel devotes as much attention in his capacious writings to India and its thought as he does to the Greek world. Indeed, Hegel writes more on what he described as the “oriental” world than he does about the Greeks.
While much has been written about Hegel concluding his comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences with an extended passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, critics have passed over in silence the much longer passage from the 13th century Sufi scholar, poet and mystic Jelaleddin Rumi, that just precedes it, and which Hegel says he “cannot refrain from quoting”. Indeed, critics have passed over in silence the astonishing fact that the culmination of Hegel’s system — that is, Philosophy as the highest expression of Absolute Spirit, as articulated in the final paragraphs of the Encyclopedia— consists of about 12 pages of text, a full 10 of which are devoted to Indian art, religion, and philosophy. Why would these appear right there at the end, at the culmination of it all?
A relentless engagement with India is integral to Hegel’s thought in ways as yet unexplored in Hegelian (or Indological) scholarship. It is remarkable how much effort Hegel expended on what he frequently characterised as “fantastic”, “subjective”, “wild”, “dreamy”, “frenzied”, “absurd”, and “repetitive”. Hegel also presented a scathing social critique of the caste order, a theme reiterated in many of his works.The central provocative issue thus is: If Indian art, religion, and philosophy are so grossly inadequate to Hegel’s system of philosophy, what explains his fascination, spanning decades, with it in this unparalleled way?
The standard answer (when anyone bothers to address the question at all) is that Hegel merely sought to show that he was wiser and more learned than his many rivals, especially the German Romantics. That may be true as far as it goes, but it is not sufficient to explain the consistency of Hegel’s interest, or, for example, the appearance of Hegel’s reflections on Indian thought even in the final sections of his Encyclopedia. Hegel could have forwarded this anti-Romanticist agenda through numerous other means than India. And even if Indian art, religion, and philosophy were the best domains for Hegel to outshine and outwit his rivals, it still hardly accounts for the obsession visible in his voluminous and, importantly, evolving approaches to the Indian spirit. It is much more adequately explanatory to assume rather that Indian thought intrigued Hegel on its own merits, and not just for a proxy war.
In fact, an attentive reading of his copious writings on India tends to suggest that Indian thought really haunted Hegel somehow. It represented a sort of nagging twin that he badly needed to shake off throughout the development of his own philosophy. This twin clearly possessed him in some respect. Hegel himself indicates the similarity of Indian philosophy to his own thought, such as the conception of the absolute (Brahman). He did, however, achieve two points of clarity in distinguishing his own thought from Indian philosophy: The first was to focus on his central motif of freedom, thus railing perpetually against the caste system in Indian society, and attempting to read traces or resonances of casteism into the entire breadth and depth of Indian history, politics, art, religion, and philosophy. The second was to indicate the necessity for dialectical, progressive mediation. He thus frequently to alluded to the apparent stasis of Indian thought as a contrast.
But did Hegel really ever manage to exorcise this twin haunting his work? After working through Hegel’s huge corpus of India writings, the reader may find reason to doubt this. But it was surely not for a lack of Hegel vehemently trying.