In the wake of the philosophers and encyclopaedists, the great French writers of the 19th century became fascinated with India, which, before giving rise to unspeakable reveries and profound metaphysical reflections, remained the land of plenty for rajas and nabobs, where the young Stendhal planned to go to make his fortune, and from which Fortunio, the wealthy hero of Théophile Gautier, returned to find that in France everything was dull: fortunes are mediocre, men ugly, women charmless, entertainment tasteless and the sun dull. 

To the poet, India offers the luxuriance of its nature and its myths, which the Parnassian Leconte de Lisle uses to produce beauty, art and wonder. Like all writers of his time, the Reunionese poet immersed himself in Indian literature: he read the Ṛg Veda, the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Lamartine felt a shock on discovering the Bhagavad Gītā and Victor Hugo transposed the Kena Upaniṣad in his poem 'Supremacie'. The discovery of Śakuntalā, the drama of Kālidāsa, provoked the same emotion in French literary circles as it did throughout Europe. Chateaubriand admired the Sanskrit language, whose introduction into Europe was for 'the republic of letters [a] priceless gift'.

Like Voltaire, all these great writers recognised the anteriority of India: it was India that first conceived the oneness of God, created the sciences and the arts, wrote codes and organised society. "When Egypt began, India was already old," Théophile Gautier summarised. For Michelet, it is "the matrix of the world", and for Leconte de Lisle the "venerable Cradle of the world". "The key to everything is in India," Lamartine went on to say. Balzac made Louis Lambert say that "it is impossible to question the priority of the Asian scriptures over our holy scriptures". The vicissitudes of history, the invasions and destructions have not altered the greatness of this people, nor their gentleness and respect for living creatures: "A river of milk still flows for this blessed land," wrote Michelet, “blessed by its own goodness, by its gentle care for the lower creature.”

The mark of India, especially of the Vedānta, is deep in some of the works of the nineteenth century. Lamartine's poetry as well as that of Victor Hugo contain references to the ātman's entanglement with the saṃsāra and his deliverance (mokṣa) through fusion into the divinity. In La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, Flaubert presents a sādhu, who, having abolished all duality, annihilated his karman and put an end to the saṃsāra, now merges into the Absolute. According to one of his biographers, India revealed to Rimbaud that 'there is no duality between God and creation [that] Brahman is true [and] the world false; [that] the soul of man is brahman and nothing else'. In his poetic version of the Kena Upaniṣad, Victor Hugo presents three great Vedic deities, Vāyu (the wind), Agni (the fire) and Indra (the sovereign god), compelled to recognise the 'supremacy' of the Absolute, brahman, of which they are but hypostases. It is the Buddhism of the origins, a religion without a god,  that attracts Alfred de Vigny. Lamartine, on whom India has left the deepest impression, comes to adopt an almost exclusively vegetarian diet.

None of these writers ever went to India, whatever Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle may have said. They did not lack the urge: 'If I were free, the first ship to sail to India would be likely to take me away', wrote the young Chateaubriand. “I shall die without having seen Benares," lamented Flaubert "and that is an misfortune that the bourgeois will never understand.” At the end of the 19th century, the transport revolution made travel easier: Pierre Loti, who travelled through India avoiding the English, had the intelligence to admit that he understood nothing about the country. Others, like the popular Francis de Croisset, were more concerned with literary effects than with realistic descriptions and in-depth analyses. A multitude of travellers return after a few weeks with a sloppy book, full of commonplaces on themes - castes and immolated widows, thugs and human sacrifices - that were popularised by writers who at least had the merit of being talented: Joseph Méry, Eugène Sue, Ponson du Terrail and Jules Verne. The repetitive mediocrities of hurried travellers were supported by an abundant missionary production of denigration of Brahmins and Hinduism. This easy literature shaped mentalities, much more than the refinement and elevation of the great romantics, and contributed, from exceptions erected as generalities, to the dissemination in France of clichés that have a long life.


Published in january 2022