India’s Impact on French Thought & Literature
In any colonial domination, the conqueror is often more profoundly influenced by the conquered than he could have anticipated. India’s influences on British, American, German philosophers, writers, poets and artists were considerable and have been well documented. But it is often overlooked that for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India was an object of fascination and at times reverence in Europe’s cultural centre — France. There are several reasons for this lack of awareness: among them, the language barrier, France’s limited physical presence in India during the colonial era, and also, in the twentieth century, what Roger-Pol Droit has called “the oblivion of India” — an oblivion which may be about to come to an end.
This paper briefly examines some of the main channels of India’s influence on French literature and thought, and attempts to make out the curve now unfolding.
Before the mid-eighteenth century, contacts between France and India were few and far between, and most accounts of the Indian subcontinent were highly fanciful. “Les Indes” (“Indias”) were synonymous with a mysterious, ill-defined remote region full of half-monstrous creatures at worst, crude savages on the whole, and enigmatic naked “gymnosophists” at best — the perfect antithesis of Europe. The chief discernible Indian influence in that period, albeit through Arab and Greek intermediaries, was that of the Panchatantra on La Fontaine’s celebrated Fables, which also featured animals to draw lessons on human nature and behaviour.
Things started changing as the colonial race warmed up. Travellers became more frequent, less inventive, and brought back more and more reliable material — including, in 1731, the first complete manuscript of the Rig-Veda (in Grantha script), deposited with the Royal Library in Paris. However, this treasure would not be recognized for decades, as no one in Europe could read Sanskrit till the 1780s.
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