Ideas from Indian Religion, Philosophy and Literature in Parsifal
he following extract has been translated from the final section of Richard Wagner och den Indiska
Tankevärlden (Stockholm, 1985) by the Indologist and Sanskrit scholar, Professor Carl Suneson. Neither this section, or indeed any of Suneson's fascinating
monograph, has, to my knowledge, been published in English translation. This is a pity because it contains information and insights that deserve to be available to
all who are interested in the dramatic works of Richard Wagner. Those who wish to read the entire book (of approximately 100 pages) but who cannot read Swedish
might like to seek out the German translation by Gert Kreutzer, published under the title Richard Wagner und die Indische Geisteswelt.
or the reader who is accustomed to thinking of Wagner's Parsifal as an exclusively Christian work that is based upon a particular medieval poem, Wolfram's Parzival, some of this extract might
come as a surprise. In his monograph on the Indian influence (direct and indirect) upon Richard Wagner and his dramatic works, Carl Suneson both summarised and
extended all previous studies in this area. It might be noted that Wolfgang Osthoff's study of Die Sieger (The Victors)
is contemporary with Suneson's book; these separate studies of the Buddhist elements in Wagner's works are complementary and together throw
new light on this aspect of the Wagner canon.
hose of us who incline towards the view that Schopenhauer's philosophy was the dominant influence on all of
Wagner's later works (i.e. after the 1854 watershed), while accepting the importance of the Buddhist and Brahmanist (i.e. Hindu)
influences, tend to regard them as secondary. It is also possible to take the view that these oriental ideas influenced Wagner directly and independently of any
Schopenhauerian context. In any case, in order to understand what happens in Parsifal it is first necessary to recognise the importance of Wagner's belief
(clearly stated in a letter of August 1860) in reincarnation and karma; this subject was explored in depth by Osthoff. It is more difficult to take seriously, in the light of the studies by Osthoff and Suneson respectively, the extreme view of
Parsifal forcefully put forward in Richard Wagner: Parsifal by Lucy Beckett, that this drama is an exclusively Christian work in which Buddhist and Brahmanist ideas -- which, it should be noted, Wagner often blended and confused --
like karma, if present at all, are insignificant. The Indian concepts of karma (literally actions, also used in a wider sense to mean the results
of actions) and punya (merit, which accumulates from good actions) are of fundamental importance in Wagner's Parsifal,
a fact that has escaped most commentators, among whom Carl Suneson and Wolfgang Osthoff are the notable exceptions.
ranslator's note: I have omitted some of the Sanskrit and Pali quotations, retaining only an English translation of
the Swedish text. I have included English prose translations of the Middle High German quotations but I have provided translations only for some of the
modern German quotations. One MHG quotation has been replaced by a link to another page on this web site where several descriptions of Condrie are provided for
comparison. Where lines from Wagner's Parsifal are not translated below, I refer the reader to my annotated English translation of
the libretto. I have kept most of Suneson's footnotes (marked as "author's footnote") except for those that only reference the poem of Parsifal in
Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen; and I have added a few explanatory footnotes of my own (marked as "translator's footnote") as well as a few in-line
clarifications (contained in [brackets]). Section headings have been added to assist the reader; they do not appear in the original.
agner's "Bühnenweih-Festspiel", completed in the twilight of his life, is a summary of his musical and literary
achievements, and the light of the Grail reveals reflections from many cultures and epochs. Sacred and profane, occidental and oriental,
Christian and Buddhist, all included in this unusually beautiful and multifaceted synthesis.
he formal starting-point for Wagner was Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval epic-poem
Parzival, completed around 1210. This work, a broad fresco in which all of the richness and motley of medieval society is brought to life, is
characterised by a direct, popular and burlesque style. So it is quite unlike Wagner's Parsifal in character. Wolfram's medieval
realism can be seen as a contrast with the idealism of Wagner and the nineteenth century, and although Wagner and his contemporaries received Parzival as
a mystical and allegorical work, the modern scholar is more likely to emphasise its political and didactic content. Already in Wagner's Dresden library there was
the Middle High German "editio princeps" of the text, Karl Lachmann's edition, Berlin 1833, together with the modern German translations respectively by San-Marte
(1836) and Simrock (1842), and Wagner made his first acquaintance with Parzival already in 1845.
uring the long process through which the Parsifal -drama grew to maturity, before it could be performed
for the first time in the summer of 1882, elements of widely varied traditions and diverse origins were assimilated and blended together. Wagner took from Wolfram personal names and specific incidents, and he decorated the outer frame with Christian symbols in accordance
with the aesthetic- religious view of art that he made his own. This does not hide the fact that motives with their origins in non-Christian world- views also
found their way into the work.
t should also be recalled, as Karl Heckel demonstrated already in 1891 1, that even two earlier works by Wagner contributed to the diversity of ideas in Parsifal: the unfinished drama Jesus of
Nazareth from 1848 and even more so, The Victors [Die Sieger]. The extremely intimate relationship between The
Victors and Parsifal was something on which Wagner himself remarked 2 and it appears with extreme clarity in a diary
entry made by Cosima on 6 January 1881. This establishes a link between Prakriti and Kundry, in
that the essence of both works is said to be the redemption of a woman:
Wir sprechen davon, dass ungefähr dasselbe Thema (die Erlösung des Weibes) in beiden, Parsifal und
Sieger, behandelt würde.
n the diversity of motives and representations which can be found in Parsifal, there are many which have
oriental connections. The worlds of the Grail and of Klingsor respectively might suggest an Iranian
background, and the strange and suggestive final words of the work could be seen as referring to gnostic ideas of a god who permeates matter:
Höchsten Heiles Wunder: Erlösung dem Erlöser!
rabian references are prominent in Wolfram's poem, naturally enough in a work written at
the time of the Crusades, and their weak echoes can be heard in Wagner's drama. Of special interest in this context is the revision of the spelling of the name of
the title character, from Parzival to Parsifal, on which Wagner decided and which Cosima recorded on 14 March 1877:
Und Parsifal wird er heissen.
This was based on a supposed Arabic etymology which Wagner connected with the expression
der reine Tor, and it was explained to Parsifal by
Kundry in the second act:
Dich nannt' ich, tör'ger Reiner, "Fal parsi" - Dich, reinen Toren "Parsifal".
agner had found a reference to this false etymology when he read Joseph von Görres edition of Lohengrin, ein
altdeutsches Gedicht ..., Heidelberg 1813, where the author put forward the following argument:
Wir wissen nicht, ob es allein Spiel des Zufalls ist, dass selbst der Name des Helden Parcifal auf
ganz ungezwungene Weise aus dem Arabischen sich ableiten lässt: Parsi oder Parseh Fal, d.i. der reine oder arme Dumme, oder thumbe in der Sprache des Gedichts,
in welchem Charakter er auch durch den ganzen Verlauf vortrefflich gehalten ist. (Einleitung, s. VI)
arsifal is in my opinion, of Wagner's completed music-dramas, that in which the Indian influence is most
demonstrable. In what follows below, a number of episodes and ideas in the work will be subjected to analysis and discussion, which with a high degree of certainty
can be said to derive from Indian tradition and Indian thought. This appears more natural when we consider Parsifal's dependency
upon The Victors, even if an exact delineation of which motives are Indian, and which are not, might not be possible. Departures from Wolfram will be noted, although it should not be overlooked that even in that medieval work, despite its somewhat fluid geography, there are
significant Indian contents 3.
lready in their outer framing Wolfram's Parzival and Wagner's Parsifal
reveal significant differences. Wolfram's colourful medieval world, full of contrasts, with its tumble of characters, tournaments and
battles, is marked by its almost total absence in Wagner's drama, where in its place there appears a portrayal of nature and scenery which are closer to those of
Indian literature. The naturalistic description of the area surrounding Monsalvat, which has no counterpart in Wolfram, is more suggestive of an Indian hermitage (ashrama) in which the Grail knights, especially Gurnemanz, are more like Indian ascetics (sannyasin) than Christian templists. In the third act
Gurnemanz explains to Kundry the ascetic ideal, in which one lives like the animals on herbs and
roots from forest and meadow:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act three.]
Das wird dich wenig müh'n!
Auf Botschaft sendet sich's nicht mehr:
Kräuter und Wurzeln
findet ein jeder sich selbst,
wir lernen's im Walden vom Tier.
That won't keep you busy!
We send out no messengers now.
Herbs and roots
each finds for himself.
We learn from the forest beasts.
he sacredness of animals, something quite alien to the western medieval world, clearly is promoted in the first act
when the squire says:
He! Du da! - Was liegst du dort wie ein wildes Tier?
to which Kundry replies:
Sind die Tiere hier nicht heilig?
espect for life and non-violence (ahimsa) belong to the ethical foundations of almost all Indian religious
and philosophical traditions. This solidarity with and fellow- feeling for all that lives is forcefully expressed in Gurnemanz's
condemnation of Parsifal after the latter has shot down a swan:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act one.]
Du konntest morden? Hier, im heil'gen Walde,
dess' Stiller Frieden dich umfing?
Des Haines Tiere nahten dir nicht zahm?
Grüssten dich freundlich und fromm?
Aus den Zweigen was sangen die Vöglein dir?
Was tat dir der treue Schwan?
Sein Weibchen zu suchen flog er auf,
mit ihm zu kreisen über dem See,
den so er herrlich weih'te zum [heilenden] Bad:
dem stauntest du nicht? Dich lockt' es nur
zu wild kindischem Bogengeschoss?
Er war uns hold; was ist er nun dir?
Hier - schau her! - hier trafst du ihn:
da starrt noch das Blut, matt hängen die Flügel,
das Schneegefieder dunkel befleckt -
gebrochen das Aug', siehst du den Blick?
Wirst deiner Sündentat du inne?
Sag', Knab', erkennst du deine grosse Schuld?
Wie konntest du sie begeh'n?
You could commit murder, here in the holy forest,
surrounded by stillness and peace?
Did not the woodland beasts approach you tamely?
Did they not greet you as friends?
From the branches what did the birds sing to you?
What had the faithful swan done to you?
Seeking his mate he flew up
to circle over the lake with her,
gloriously to bless the [healing] bath.
Did this not impress you? Did it only tempt
a wild, childish shot from your bow?
We cherished him; what is he now to you?
Here - see here! - here you hit him,
see how the blood congeals, how the wing droops,
the snowy feathers flecked with blood -
the eyes glazed; do you see his look?
Do you realise your sinfulness?
Tell me, boy, do you acknowledge your great guilt?
How could you do this?
he nature-poetry passages in Parsifal, with serene woods and meadows in which humans and all kinds of
creatures live together in total harmony, have countless parallels in descriptions of Indian ashrama. The epic poem Ramayana, which Wagner praised highly
4, contains an abundance of such descriptions. Here is one such, of a hermitage in the forest of Dandaka, where an ascetic speaks to
[Sanskrit quotation omitted]
[Ramayana book 3 (Aranyakanda) chapter 8]
O hero ! See the pleasant thresholds of the hermitages in the forest of Dandaka. In them the sages
seek by their penance to gain purified souls. See the flowering forest abundant with fruits and tubers, with its fine herds of deer and peaceful flocks of birds.
And see these clusters of lotuses spreading over the tranquil waters of the pools and lakes with their water-birds. The water falling from the mountains delights
the eye, and pleasant are these forests, resounding with the cries of peacocks.
e have already seen how Parsifal makes his entry on stage after shooting a swan with an arrow, and how this results
in moral condemnation from Gurnemanz. At this point it seems appropriate to address the question of where this scene came from,
since there is nothing directly comparable in Wolfram. A certain commonality of motive might be claimed with Parzival 118,
4-10, in which the young Parzival with bow and arrow hunts birds and bursts into tears whenever he kills one:
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 3.]
bogen unde bölzelîn
die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant,
und schôz vil vogele die er vant.
Swenne abr er den vogel erschôz,
des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,
sô weinder unde roufte sich,
an sîn hâr kêrt er gerich.
bows and arrows
he fashioned with his own hands,
and shot at the flocks of birds there.
But when he had shot a bird
that had been singing loudly just before,
he would burst into tears
and tear out his own hair.
remote similarity can perhaps be traced in Parzival 281, 23 to 282, 22, where Arthur's
falcon, which happens to be near to Parzival, attacks a flock of geese. The falcon wounds a goose, causing three drops of blood to fall
upon the snow, which causes Parzival to think of his wife. The origins of the episode are more likely, however, to be found in two very different areas of Indian
traditions, presumably combined by Wagner: one Buddhistic and one epic 5.
he underlying Buddhist tradition is one of several that are connected with Devadatta, who
in Buddhist texts is usually described as a cousin of the Buddha. He is said to have sought to dominate the Buddhist order, to have attempted to divide it, and to have attempted a series of coups against the Buddha. There are many accounts of these events
preserved in the Buddhist tradition but the brief episode that is relevant to Parsifal is found only in the tradition of
"mulasarvastivada", one of the many early Buddhist schools that flourished around the time of the birth of Christ. Here it is told how
Devadata shot with an arrow a hamsa, a goose, which fell to the ground near to the Buddha; who sharply reproaches him, heals
the goose and refuses to accede to Devadatta's demands for its return, with the argument that he has a better right to the goose than has Devadatta, on account of the merit he has gained in countless earlier lives. Mulasarvastivada's canonical texts in Sanskrit had
been thought lost but parts of them were rediscovered in the twentieth century6. Before then only Chinese and Tibetan versions were
known, and in Wagner's time only a very limited number of translations from these versions were available. The probable source for Wagner was an article of Anton
Schiefner entitled, Eine Tibetische Lebensbeschreibung Çakjamuni's, des Begründers des Buddhathums which appeared in Mémoires des savants
étrangers, Tome VI, St. Petersburg 1851, pages 231-333. (Articles by Schiefner in Tome I of this publication were mentioned in Schopenhauer's reading list [item 6, in On the Will in Nature]). In this article Schiefner gives a
translation of the episode of Devadatta and the goose from a Tibetan version of 1734, prepared by the Tibetan scholar Rin chen chos kyi
rgyal po (page 238):
Devadatta verwundete mit einem Pfeil eine Gans, welche über seinem Garten flog. Sie stürzte in den
Garten des Bodhisattva herab, ward von ihm ergriffen, ihr der Pfeil ausgezogen und sie durch ein Heilmittel wiederhergestellt. Devadatta aber fordete die
Auslieferung der Gans, da er ein früheres Recht auf sie habe. Das war der erste Streit, welcher zwischen dem das letzte Erdenleben begehenden Bodhisattva und
he connection between the goose in this Buddhist tradition and
Wagner's swan is explained by the fact that the [Sanskrit] word hamsa (cognate with German Gans) was, in accordance with European poetic
tradition, often mistranslated as "swan". In two important respects Wagner's version differs from the Buddhistic: in the
Parsifal-text he mentions a pair of swans which circled above the lake, when the male is killed, not just wounded. A more exact parallel to
Parsifal can, however, be drawn with the already- cited epic Ramayana. A later interpolation in this epic tells of a famous episode: Valmiki, the
poet to whom the epic is attributed, was wandering by the river Tamasa when he witnessed a hunter kill a krauñca-bird (presumably a kind of crane), at which he
cast a curse upon the hunter for this wicked deed. Here are the lines:
It was in the vicinity (of this forest)
that the venerable one saw a
lively singing krauñca-pair
who flew without fear.
In his sight a hunter,
filled with wickedness
and an abode of enmity,
killed one of the pair, the male.
When the hen saw him whirl around,
dead on the field,
with bloodstained body,
she cried out bitterly...
(Valmiki cried out in compassion:)
"O, hunter! May you never find
peace in all eternity,
after you slew one of that krauñca-pair
who were drunk with love."
ere Ramayana is consistent with Parsifal in mentioning the female (
Sein Weibchen zu
suchen flog er auf) and the blood on the bird's body (
da starrt noch das Blut).
he act of Parsifal that is most influenced by Indian motives is without doubt the second, which in a
powerfully expanded form builds upon a central episode in the biography of the Buddha. The Buddha's life-history is related piecewise in the oldest Buddhist texts in Pali, and it was only in the first century after the birth of Christ that there were compiled two complete Sanskrit biographies
of the Buddha, although in different literary forms. Both works build upon an already long-established oral tradition and contain many legendary episodes. This
applies especially to Lalitavistara, an undated anonymous composition from one of the first centuries of the Christian era,
which contains both older and newer parts. The work reflects ideas that characterised a recent development in Buddhism, Maháyána. The Buddha character has
developed transcendental properties and his life-history is played out on a cosmic stage. Lalitavistara was a significant component in the foundation that
underlies the Tibetan text that Schiefner translated. The other work, Buddhacarita, is an early example of the most advanced verse form in Sanskrit,
kavya, and was written in the middle of the first century after Christ, by a Brahmin who had converted to Buddhism, Asvaghosa. Buddhacarita gives a
significantly more credible account of the Buddha's life than Lalitavistara. The later work had not been published in its Sanskrit original text during
Wagner's lifetime although it could be studied in the French translation of the Tibetan text which Foucaux published in 1848 (see Schopenhauer's reading list no.11). The other early account of the Buddha's life, Buddhacarita, would
not be published before a decade after Wagner's death. We can take it for granted that Wagner obtained his basic knowledge of the Buddha's biography from the work
of Burnouf (no.10 on the reading list) and later from Köppen (no.26)).
he central episode in the life of the Buddha takes place under the Bodhi-tree where he sits in deep meditation is
search of highest wisdom and with it supreme enlightenment, thus to become a Buddha. This turning point in Buddha's life and development takes place despite the
determined attempt of the evil tempter Mára to turn him from the path of meditation and wisdom. This event is described in detail and with artistic, dramatic power
in the Buddhist texts. Mára attacks both with the help of his seductive daughters and with his warriors, armed with all kinds of weapons.
Buddha resists the daughters' seductive temptations, and the weapons, stones and rocks that hail down upon him are changed to offerings and a peaceful rain of
flowers, so that Mára finally accepts that he has been defeated.
t is not difficult to see similarities between this scene and Klingsor's magic
garden in the second act of Parsifal: Mára's daughters = flowermaidens; Mára = Klingsor; Buddha = Parsifal. The character
of Klingsor appears in Parzival, of course, but there he plays an insignificant role. Wolfram's
Clingschor, a conventional sorcerer, is in Wagner's version transformed into a satanic incarnation of evil, more like Mára, and a worthy opponent for Parsifal. The
traditional Buddha biographies lack, however, any parallel to the very climax of the second act of Parsifal, in which Klingsor hurls at Parsifal the holy spear, which remains hanging in the air above his head:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
Halt da! dich bann' ich mit der rechten Wehr:
den Toren stell' mit seines Meisters Speer!
Stop there! I banish you with the true weapon!
The fool falls to me by his master's spear!
Parsifal grasps the spear, makes the sign of the cross and with it all of Klingsor's world collapses:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
Mit diesem Zeichen bann' ich deine Zauber:
wie die Wunde er schliesse,
die mit ihm du schlugest, -
in Trauer und Trümmer
stürze die trügende Pracht!
With this sign I banish all your magic;
as the spear closes the wound
which you dealt with it,
in grief and ruin it
destroys your deceptive display!
exact counterpart to the motive of the spear that hangs in the air above Parsifal's head is not found either in Lalitavistara or in
Buddhacarita 7, and it appears neither in Köppen's book or in Schiefner's article. However,
a parallel to this motive appears in a regional tradition of Ceylon, where already centuries before Christ was a Buddhist stronghold. The
previously-mentioned Karl Heckel drew attention many years ago to a passage in the Manual of Buddhism, 1853, by Spence Hardy,
which might have been Wagner's source. This unique work, which Schopenhauer praised highly (and included as no.24 on his reading list), reflects a living tradition from Ceylon as it was in the first half of the 19th
century. The author, who had spent more than twenty years on that island, presents Buddhism not only on the basis of study of the texts of the Pali canon, but also
from the oral tradition and popular religious literature, sannaya, in Singhalese. The version of the event at the Bodhi-tree which Spence Hardy translated
tells how Mára, when all of his previous attempts had failed, himself mounted his elephant and grasped his fearful weapon, a discus. He hurled the weapon towards
the Buddha, but like a leaf it remained hanging in the air above his head. In colourful terms the attack is described as follows (page 176):
[A Manual of Buddhism in its Modern Development, Robert Spence Hardy, 1853.]
Thus these nine dangers, wind, rain, rocks, weapons, charcoal, ashes, sand, mud and darkness, did no
harm whatever to Siddhártta, but were converted into offerings. When Mára perceived this, as he was unable to approach the prince, he said angrily to his army
from a distance, "All of you, seize Siddhártta, pierce him, cut him, break him to pieces, grind him to powder, destroy his desire to become Buddha, do not let
him escape." Saying this, he mounted his elephant Girimékhala; and brandishing his formidable discus on every side, he approached the prince and threw it towards
him. Were this weapon to be thrown against Maha Méru, it would cleave the mountain in twain as if it were a bamboo; were it cast into the ocean, its waters would
be dried up; were it hurled into the sky, it would prevent the falling of rain for twelve years; but though it has such mighty energy, it could not be brought to
approach the prince who was seeking the Buddhaship; through his great merit, it rose and fell in the air like a dry leaf, and afterwards remained in splendour
above his head, like a canopy of flowers.
pence Hardy wrote his book at a time when the Pali texts had not yet appeared in Europe. Today there are several
texts available in which the motive of Mára and his discus can be found8.
lthough the Indian Buddhist sources first became available in the west only in the 19th century, many
centuries earlier echoes of the life of the Buddha had reached Europe in the indirect form of the once widespread Christian legend of
Barlaam and Josaphat. Presumably during the 8th century Christian monks in Central Asia had come into contact
with traditions of the Buddha and elements of these traditions, including the temptation scene, were woven into Christian proselytising
in the form of the tale of the prince Josaphat, who was converted to Christianity by the monk Barlaam. From an original, now lost, in
the middle-Iranian language, pahlaví, this story was transmitted in Arabic and Greek versions, which were translated into practically every language of the
Christian world. In and with the 12th century Latin version which was the basis of translations into west-European languages, the legend
achieved an unprecedented popularity in the middle ages, when Barlaam and Josaphat were regarded as historical individuals, finally resulting in their canonization
by the Catholic Church.
hese names can be traced back to Indian originals. Barlaam might have been originally the Sanskrit word
bhagavan, the venerable one, a common term used for divinities and persons of high religious status. Josaphat might, perhaps through the Arabic form
Budhasaf, derive from the Sanskrit word bodhisattva, a term applied to one who is on the way to becoming a Buddha. Three versions of Barlaam
und Josaphat appeared in Middle High German, of which one from 1325-30, attributed to Rudolf von Ems, was the most renowned. Rudolf's version was reprinted in
Leipzig in 1843, and came into Wagner's possession in his Dresden period 9 and so might have been a source supplementing the Buddhist tradition. The Indian king Avenir has given the sorcerer Thêodas the task of persuading his son Josaphat to renounce his Christian faith. Thêodas sends to him a woman who offers Josaphat her erotic services, in exchange for allowing herself to be baptised.
Preaching the Christian faith, Josaphat resists the temptation, and this seduction scene resembles that between Kundry and Parsifal in the second act of Wagner's drama:
[Barlaam und Josaphat, in the Middle High German version by Rudolf von Ems, ca. 1325-30.]
»ob dû wilt êwiclîche
ein lebendeƷ leben koufen,
ſô ſoltû dich toufen
und ſolt an den gewæren Kriſt
gelouben, der dîn ſchepher iſt,
der dir mit endelôſer zît
ein iemer werndeƷ leben gît.«
diu vrouwe ſprach: »nû daƷ tuon ich
ob ich alſus erbarme dich,
als dû gihſt, ſô ſoltû
tuon, des ich muote nû.«
»ſwaƷ dû wilt, vrouwe, daƷ tuon ich,
daƷ dû gote toufeſt dich
und dich dem tiuvel roubeſt
unde an got geloubeſt.«
Dô ſprach daƷ minneclîche wîp:
»wil dû gote mînen lîp
und mîne ſêle koufen
und ſol ich mich toufen,
ſô tuo, des ich an dich ger.«
»gerne, vrouwe mîn!« ſprach er,
»ich tuon gar den willen dîn.
nû ſage mir, waƷ dû welleſt mîn.«
»dâ lâ mich dir angeſigen,
daƷ dû geruocheft bî mir ligen
hînaht durch den willen mîn,
daƷ ich mich geniete dîn
und dû dich mînes lîbes,
des ſchœneſten wîbes,
diu hie ze lande iender iſt.
tuoſt dû daƷ, ich wil durch Kriſt
mich morgen toufen unde wil
der heidenſcheſte geben ein zil.«
"if you will purchase
living eternal life,
then you must be baptised
and believe in the proven Christ,
who is your judge,
who gives life and shelter
through endless ages."
The damsel said: "Now I do this
because I have pity on you,
as you preach, so should you
act, as I do now."
"If I can, lady, I shall do as you ask,
if you allow yourself to be baptised,
to cheat the devil of your soul,
and if you will believe in God."
Then said the beautiful woman:
"if your God wants my body
and my soul to purchase,
and if I must be baptised,
then I will grant you this."
"Gladly, lady!", he replied,
"I shall do what you ask,
now tell me, what you want from me."
"Then let me approach you,
let it please you to lie beside me
tonight, as I want
to experience your love
and for you to receive mine,
the love of the most beautiful woman
to be found anywhere in the land.
If you do this, then through Christ
tomorrow I shall be baptised
and forsake the heathen faith."
here can scarcely remain any doubt that the prototype of Parsifal's second act is to be sought in the
Buddhist tradition; although Peter Wapnewski, the foremost medieval specialist who has also written
about Wagner 10, takes the view that it derives from Parzival 619, 1-15, where Orgeluse tells of her encounter with Parzival:
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 12.]
Dô er die mîne überstreit,
nâch dem helde ich selbe reit.
ich bôt im lant unt mînen lîp:
er sprach, er hete ein schœner wîp,
unt diu im lieber wære.
diu rede was mir swære:
ich vrâgete wer diu möhte sîn.
»von Pelrapeir diu künegîn,
sus ist genant diu lieht gemâl:
sô heize ich selbe Parzivâl.
ichn wil iwer minne niht:
der grâl mir anders kumbers giht.«
sus sprach der helt mit zorne:
hin reit der ûz erkorne.
After he had defeated my men,
I rode after the warrior myself
and offered him my lands and body:
he replied, that he had a fairer wife,
and he loved her dearly.
This was hard for me to hear
and I asked him who she was.
"The queen of Belrepeire,
is my dear wife.
My own name is Parzival.
I do not want your love:
the Grail gives me other troubles."
so spoke the hero in anger:
and then he rode away.
hat is related in this short passage, however, is only Orgeluse's offer of marriage to Parzival (
ich bôt im lant
unt mînen lîp), his rejection of the offer in which he speaks of his wife (
er hete ein schœner wîp, unt diu im lieber wære) and of his duty to seek the
ichn will iuwer minne niht: der grâl mir anders kumbers giht), and his farewell. This episode can hardly be compared either
with the attempted seduction beneath the Bodhi-tree or that which takes place in Klingsor's magic garden, and therefore it must be
seen as a quite inadequate basis on which to explain Wagner's grandiose and dramatic treatment with its metaphysical resonances.
nother Indian angle on Parsifal concerns the character Kundry. This
mysterious double-creature, whose existence alternates between demonic and servile, is perhaps the most fascinating of Wagner's female characters, and although in
her he has combined aspects of Cundrîe in Parzival, Mary Magdalen in Jesus of Nazareth
and Prakriti in The Victors, she is and remains uniquely "sui generis". Already in Wolfram there is a hint of Cundrîe's two natures, and her origin is given as India. Here is the long
description of Cundrîe given in Parzival 312, 19 to 314, 6 in Wolfram's characteristic, rough-hewn, pithy and
lightly ironic style ...
n one side of Cundrîe's personality there is an elegant lady of the world, who is able to converse from a knowledge
of scholarship and in several languages including Latin, French and "heathen", i.e. Arabic. She dresses in the latest fashions, with an excellent French cloak
daz was ein kappe wol gesniten al nâch der Franzoyser siten) and with a brocade-edged peacock-hat from London (
von Lunders ein pfæwîn huot, gefurriert
mit einem blîalt - der huot was niuwe, die snuor nie alt). This learning and elegance is only a facade, however, which covers an almost animal nature. Cundrîe
has a dog's nose (
genaset als ein hunt), ape-like hands (
gevar als eines affen hût truoc hende), hair like a boar's bristles (
lind als eins swînes
rückehâr), two long wild-pig tusks protruding from her mouth (
zwên ebers zene ir vür den munt giengen wol spannen lanc) and her pigtails bounce against
her humped back as she rides on her mule. The frightening and strange appearance of Cundrîe in Wolfram's poem is connected with the
exotic and unknown. Further on in the poem, 517, 16-30, we learn that Cundrîe and her equally unpleasant-looking brother, Malcrêatiure, came from
India, where they grew up beside the river Ganges (Ganjas):
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 10.]
Malcrêatiure hiez der knappe fiere:
Cundrîe la surziere
was sîn swester wol getân:
er muose ir antlütze hân
gar, wan daz er was ein man.
im stuont ouch ietweder zan
als einem eber wilde,
unglîch menschen bilde.
im was dez hâr ouch niht sô lanc
als ez Cundrîen ûf den mûl dort swanc:
kurz, scharf als igels hût ez was.
bî dem wazzer Ganjas
ime lant ze Trîbalibôt
wahsent liute alsus durch nôt.
The proud squire was called Malcrêatiure:
Cundrîe the sorceress
was his lovely sister:
He was her spitting image
except that he was a man.
Like hers, his two fangs
jutted out like those a boar,
not resembling a human being.
But his hair was not as long
as that which dangled over Cundrîe's mule:
but short and sharp like a hedgehogs coat.
By the river Ganges
in the land of Trîbalibôt
are people like that by misfortune.
olfram refers to India by the curious name of Trîbalibôt. The name (Trî)balibôt probably
derives, via the Greek form Βαλιβοθρα, from the Sanskrit Pataliputra [the modern Patna], the capital of the old kingdom of Magadha in
the east of India, which has connections with the earliest history of Buddhism.
undrîe's double nature in Parzival develops with Kundry in
Parsifal into something of metaphysical dimensions, and her later development from defiant heathen into humble penitent is missing from the former. If
Wolfram's Cundrîe symbolises that which is alien, then Wagner's Kundry is more the carrier of
fundamentally Indian ideas. As it was in The Victors, in Parsifal the idea of reincarnation is a fundamental motive, and it is in the character
of Kundry that it finds its clearest expression. In the first act Gurnemanz refers to her rebirth and atonement for guilt in her present life:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act one.]
Ja, eine Verswünschte mag sie sein.
Hier lebt sie heut' - vielleicht erneu't,
zu büssen Schuld aus früher'm Leben,
die dorten ihr noch nicht vergeben.
Yes, one under a curse she might be.
Here she lives today - perhaps reborn,
to expiate sin committed in an earlier life,
unforgiven there and then.
n the opening scene of the second act, when Klingsor awakens Kundry's demonic nature, he mentions her different incarnations, of which Gundryggia perhaps represents
an "Indian" form of name for Kundry:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
Herauf! Herauf! Zu mir!
Dein Meister ruft dich, Namenlose,
Herodias war'st du, und was noch?
Gundryggia dort, Kundry hier!
Hieher! Hieher denn, Kundry!
Zu deinem Meister; herauf!
Arise! Arise! To me!
Your master calls you, nameless one,
primeval devil-woman! Rose of Hell!
You were Herodias, and who else?
Gundryggia there, Kundry here!
Come here! Come hither, Kundry!
To your master; arise!
he state of hibernation
which Kundry enters between her errand for the Grail and her awakening to serve Klingsor might be compared to the Indian [Vedic] concept of susupti, deep sleep. This is a state, deeper than dreaming sleep,
described in Indian texts as one in which the átman is briefly released
from the bands of matter, and which therefore involves a foretaste of moksha [release, Erlösung], the complete release from samsara [the cycle of
rebirth] 11. Kundry is in a similar way, while she hibernates, beyond the
separation of the material world into good and evil domains. Kundry, who is more than any other character in Parsifal a
figure representing the cycle of rebirth, embodies both of the forces that permeate the entire work, Verlangen [desire] and
Erlösung [redemption]. These terms can be equated respectively with the Buddhist terms trsna (thirst or craving) or
upadana (clinging to existence); and moksha (release from the wheel of existence). Driven by lust and desire, she is at the same time gripped by
a longing for redemption. Since her fateful meeting with Christ and his curse on her, she has wandered like a female Ahasuerus from
existence to existence in vain search of her redeemer, with whom she seeks physical union. She gives Parsifal a harrowing account of samsara's irresistable,
driving rhythm which never lets her rest but which drives her to new incarnations:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
Seit Ewigkeiten harre ich deiner,
des Heilands, ach! So spät!
Den einst ich kühn geschmäht.
Oh! Kenntest du den Fluch,
der mich durch Schlaf und Wachen,
durch Tod und Leben,
Pein und Lachen,
zu neuem Leiden neu gestählt,
endlos durch das Dasein quält!
An eternity have I awaited you,
my Saviour, oh! So late!
Whom once I dared revile.
Oh! If you knew the curse,
which compels me asleep, awake,
through death and back to life,
in pain and laughter,
in ever new forms to suffer anew,
tortured by unending existence!
arsifal, who now perceives the path of awakening and who has become aware of his mission, declares the
incompatibility of craving and release. He brings home to her, in almost Buddhist terms, that a precondition of die Erlösung is
the denial of the craving for life:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
Auch dir bin ich zum Heil gesandt,
bleib'st du dem Sehnen abgewandt.
Die Labung, die dein Leiden endet,
beut nicht der Quell, aus dem es fliesst;
das Heil wird nimmer dir gespendet,
eh' jener Quell sich dir nicht schliesst.
For your salvation too I was sent here,
if you will turn aside from your desires.
The balm that will end your suffering
does not flow from its origin;
salvation can never be granted you
until that source is sealed.
hat sinful lust is the decisive factor preventing awakening and liberation is a recurring theme in
Suttanipata, the only Pali text of which Wagner owned a translation, in which one verse reads as follows:
[Pali quotation omitted]
[Atthakavagga, Kamasutta 3.]
He who escapes sinful desire, like the head of a snake at his feet,
he overcomes that desire fully conscious in the world.
ust as for Prakriti, for Kundry it is renunciation
and an asexual love that leads to
die Erlösung des Weibes, and Kundry is Prakriti
developed and intensified. Prakriti enters into the Buddhist community and by doing so takes the decisive
step on the path to her eventual release from samsara. Kundry enters the community by allowing herself to be baptised, but her
world-wandering is now at an end and when in the final scene, with her gaze fixed upon Parsifal, she falls dead, she leaves forever the cycle of existence. In
characteristically Wagnerian manner, Kundry's double nature is shown in a sensual act that is also a form of communication. In the middle of the second act Parsifal simultaneously and disturbingly experiences both Kundry's
kiss and Amfortas's wound, which initiates his development towards maturity and deeds of redemption. Like the Buddha in The
Victors through Prakriti, Parsifal gains through his encounter with Kundry and a deeply
emotional experience, a completely new kind of insight. Kundry recognises that she is the catalyst of this change:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act two.]
So war es mein Kuss,
der welthellsichtig dich machte?
Mein volles Liebes Umfangen
lässt dich dann Gottheit erlangen.
Die Welt erlöse, ist dies dein Amt;
schuf dich zum Gott die Stunde,
für sie lass mich ewig dann verdammt,
nie heile mir die Wunde!
So was it my kiss
that gave you world-perception?
Then the full embrace of my loving
surely will raise you to godhead!
Redeem the world, if that's your mission;
let me make you a god, for just an hour,
rather than leave me to eternal damnation,
my wound never to be healed!
he Indian teaching of wisdom's decisive importance for final redemption coexists in Parsifal with Christian teachings. This true knowledge naturally affects the central character, Parsifal, and his development from der reine Tor to
Gralskönig. The theme of der reine Tor is already, in some respects, found in Wolfram. Parsifal is obviously also a
kind of Christ- figure, one who suffers the torments of Christ, although Wagner's understanding of Christ is highly individual, complicated, and in some ways
incompatible with the Saviour known to Christian theology. Christ is, for Wagner, both Erlöser and in need of Erlösung
(recall "Die Gottesklage" in the second act:
erlöse, rette mich aus schuldbefleckten Händen!) and there is between him and Parsifal [at the end of
the third act] a kind of reciprocal pacification. On closer examination of Wagner's text, it is not unreasonable to perceive in his Parsifal-Christ figure a
suggestion of the Buddhist bodhisattva-ideal.
n later Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva 12 is one
who is on the way to becoming a Buddha and who has vowed to postpone their final transition to Buddhahood, to work for the salvation of all sentient beings and in
a totally self-sacrificing manner to serve them. The bodhisattva doctrine includes a description of the transfer of merit from a bodhisattva to those in need of
help. The being who receives this help is freed from further rebirth and the consequences of their actions in earlier lives,
karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the bodhisattva's boundless sea of mercy. Parsifal's confused outburst to Gurnemanz in the third act can be interpreted as a reflection of this teaching, also in terms of reincarnation:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act three.]
Und ich, ich bin's,
der all' dies Elend schuf!
Ha! Welcher Sünden,
welcher Frevel Schuld
muss dieses Toren Haupt
seit Ewigkeit belasten,
And I, I am the one
who caused all this misery!
Ah! What sins,
what offending guilt
must this fool's head
bear from all eternity;
arsifal rightly accuses himself of having caused, in his ignorance on his previous visit, the present distress of
the Grail knights. Yet he also states that he bears a burden of guilt
from all eternity [seit Ewigkeit], which might be considered a
remarkable statement, since his guilt originated in his present life. His self- accusal might be more reasonable if, for one factor, he is taking into account his
previous incarnations and, for another factor, that like a bodhisattva he bears the burdens of others. This Buddhistic interpretation does
not necessarily exclude the presence of the Christian motive of the sinless sufferer.
t is nevertheless possible to present this part of the text in a way that unambiguously reveals the
bodhisattva-ideal. According to the Buddhist scriptures the [advanced] bodhisattva should possess a certain number, usually ten, perfected
attributes, the so-called páramitá 13. The two most vital attributes that go to make up the ethical character of a
bodhisattva are karuná, fellow-feeling [or compassion], and prajñá, wisdom 14, which together express the highest
Buddhist ethic. Fellow- suffering was for Wagner, as for Schopenhauer, the highest ethical imperative, and therefore Buddhist fellow- feeling had a special resonance for him. The bodhisattva's two cardinal virtues,
Mitleid und Wissen, are clearly
emphasised at the three decisive moments of Parsifal's progress. The first time we encounter these virtues together is when Amfortas, at prayer before the Grail, receives in a vision the prophecy:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act one.]
Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor,
harre sein', den ich erkor.
omparison with Wolfram reveals that Wagner has deepened the prophecy motive and given it
both ethical and metaphysical dimensions. In the medieval text, 781, 15-16, Parzival reads on the Grail, which in Wolfram is not a chalice but a stone, the laconic statement:
daz epitafium ist gelesen:
du solt des gräles härre wesen.
hen the prophecy is fulfilled and Parsifal is anointed as Grail king in the third act,
Gurnemanz calls upon Christ, who has shared Parsifal's sufferings. This solemn climax is bathed in a radiance of fellow-feeling
and wisdom and Gurnemanz, as he blesses Parsifal, accords to Christ the epithets mitleidsvoll Duldender and
[Wagner's Parsifal, act three.]
So ward es uns verhiessen;
so segne ich dein Haupt,
als König dich zu grüssen.
Du - Reiner! -
Wie des Erlös'ten Leiden du gelitten,
die letzte Last entnimm nun seinem Haupt!
Thus it was promised to us;
thus I bless your head,
to hail you as king.
You - pure one! -
wise and full of healing;
as you have borne the suffering of redemption,
lift the last load from his head!
he terms Mitleid and Wissen again appear together in Parsifal's final words when he heals
Amfortas' wound with the holy spear:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act three.]
Nur eine Waffe taugt: -
die Wunde schliesst
der Speer nur, der sie schlug.
Sei heil, entsündigt und gesühnt!
Denn ich verwalte nun dein Amt.
Gesegnet sei dein Leiden,
das Mitleids höchste Kraft,
und reinsten Wissen's Macht
dem zagen Thoren gab!
One weapon alone will serve: -
only the spear that struck you
heals the wound.
Be whole, absolved and healed!
Now I shall perform your office.
O blessed be your suffering,
that gave compassion's highest power
and purest wisdom's might
to the timid fool!
nce again Wagner has blended together Christian and Buddhist
representations. Suffering has led to compassion and understanding, and it is through the power of these attributes that Parsifal has become worthy of the kingship
and thus able to uncover the Grail.
he heart of Parsifal is the scene in the third act known as the "Karfreitagszauber", which wonderfully
reveals Wagner's ability to extend and enrich an episode from Wolfram, while at the same time interpreting it both from Christian and Indian perspectives. Parzival 448, 1-20 describes how on Good Friday the title character meets a grey
knight, with his wife and two daughters:
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 9.]
Dô sprach der rîter grâ gevar:
»meint ir got den diu magt gebar?
geloubt ir sîner mennescheit,
waz er als hiut durch uns erleit,
als man diss tages zît begêt,
unrehte iu denne dez harnasch stêt.
ez ist hiute der karfrîtac,
des al diu werlt sich freun mac
unt dâ bî mit angest siufzec sîn.
wâ wart ie hôher triwe schîn,
dan die got durch uns begienc,
den man durch uns anz kriuze hienc?
hêrre, pflegt ir toufes,
sô jâmer iuch des koufes:
er hât sîn werdeclîchez leben
mit tôt für unser schult gegeben,
durch daz der mensche was verlorn,
durch schulde hin zer helle erkorn.
ob ir niht ein heiden sît,
sô denket, hêrre, an dise zît.«
Then the grey knight said:
"Do you mean God who was born of the Virgin?
Who loved mankind so much,
that he suffered for us,
on this day which we now observe
when it is not fitting to ride in armour.
Today is Good Friday,
on which the whole world can rejoice
and at the same time mourn in anguish.
Where was greater fidelity shown
than when God suffered for us,
when they hung him on the Cross?
Sir, if you believe,
so let this affect you:
he gave up his earthly life,
dying to atone for our sins
when mankind was damned,
to save us all from hell.
If you are not a heathen,
reflect, sir, on these matters."
his is a short but significant scene in Wolfram's poem. Dressed in armour, the ignorant
Parzival is sharply corrected by the knight and informed of the day's religious significance (
als man diss tages zît begêt, unrehte iu denne daz harnasch stêt.
ez ist hiute der karvrîtac). The event represents the beginning of an awakening for Parzival, and a short time after it he meets the hermit Trevrizent and
begins a process that will lead him to spiritual and intellectual maturity. Wolfram's presentation is a matter-of-fact and direct
description, and he makes the grey knight explain the significance of the Crucifixion in conventional Christian terms as a death of
er hât sîn werdeclîchez leben mit tôt für unser schult gegeben). Wagner changes this prosaic and realistically described episode into a lengthy
sacred drama, with elements of ritual symbolism and meditative nature-mysticism. Arriving like his medieval namesake in armour, Parsifal has returned with the holy
spear, to receive a royal blessing from Gurnemanz and to give Kundry baptism. He looks out over
the dew-fresh meadows and experiences
des höchsten Schmerzentags now filled with complete peace, reconciliation and liberation. Through Parsifal and
Gurnemanz, Wagner expresses the significance of Good Friday and the Crucifixion in terms that go far beyond the limits of
Christian theology. All that lives is part of a unity that although hierarchically structured is a fellowship, on the natural basis of
was atmet, lebt und wieder lebt). The significance of the Crucifixion is directly accessible to mankind,
through whom the rest of nature is able to partake of its grace (
Ihn selbst am Kreuze kann sie nicht erschauen: da blickt sie zum erlösten Menschen
auf). The footprint of redeemed mankind can be felt by all of nature, which is no longer to be harmed (
dass heut' des Menschen Fuss sie nicht
zertritt). Then Parsifal, as both bodhisattva and redeemer, interprets the day of greatest pain as a day of total innocence, and there follows a hymn to the
unity of life, which expresses the essence of the scene:
[Wagner's Parsifal, act three.]
O weh', des höchsten Schmerzentags!
Da sollte, wähn' ich, was da blüh't,
was atmet, lebt und wieder lebt,
nur trauern, ach! und weinen.
O alas the day of greatest pain!
Then should, I think, all that blossoms,
that breathes, lives and lives again,
only mourn, ah! and weep.
Du siehst, das ist nicht so.
Des Sünders Reuetränen sind es,
die heut' mit heil'gem Tau
beträufet Flur und Au';
der liess sie so gedeihen.
Nun freu't sich alle Kreatur
auf des Erlösers holder Spur,
will sein Gebet ihm weihen.
Ihn selbst am Kreuze kann sie nicht erschauen;
da blickt sie zum erlös'ten Menschen auf;
der fühlt sich frei von Sündenlast und Grauen,
durch Gottes Liebesopfer rein und heil.
Das merkt nun Halm und Blume auf den Auen,
dass heut' des Menschen Fuss sie nicht zertritt,
doch wohl, wie Gott mit himmlischer Geduld
sich sein erbarmt' und für ihn litt,
der Mensch auch heut' in frommer Huld
sie schont mit sanftem Schritt.
Das dankt dann alle Kreatur,
was all' da blüht und bald erstirbt
da die entsündigte Natur
heut' ihren Unschuldstag erwirbt.
You see, that's not how it is.
It is the tears of repentant sinners,
that fall like holy dew today
to moisten field and meadow;
thus making them fertile.
Now all creatures rejoice
in visible signs of the Redeemer,
to whom they dedicate their prayers.
Since they cannot see Him on the Cross,
they look up instead to man redeemed;
who feels free from dread and the burden of sin
because of God's pure, loving sacrifice.
The grass and flowers of the meadows notice
that man's foot does not trample them today,
but that, as God with heavenly patience
had mercy and suffered for man,
so mankind today in pious gratitude
spares nature with gentle tread.
Then all creatures give thanks,
all that blooms and soon will fade,
nature now absolved from sin
today enjoys its day of innocence.
Footnote 1: Jesus von Nazareth - Buddha ("Die Sieger") - Parsifal
, Bayreuther Blätter, pages 5-19. [Author's
Well aware of this fact, G.H. Welbon expressed some uncertainty:
Asked about the work two decades later, Wagner responded
that its essence had been pressed into his Parsifal. It is not altogether clear, however, what essence he had in mind. The
Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters
, page 178. [Author's note]
These passages are, however, mostly of a general and often negative character. An imaginative but extreme attempt to read
as in large part a contemporary account of the Far East and India, was made by the Indologist H. Goetz in his
study Der Orient der Kreuzzüge in Wolframs Parzival
, Archiv für Kulturgesichte, Band 49, Heft 1 (1967), pages 1-42. Goetz thought that he had been
able to identify various Indian place-names and historical Indian persons in the poem, as well as finding several allusions to important political and military
events which occurred in association with the Turkish invasion of north-west India at the end of the twelfth century. His conclusions might be described, however,
as a quagmire of uncertain speculations. [Author's note]
Wagner was reading Ramayana
(in Holtzmann's less than literal translation) in the weeks preceding the Munich Prose Draft
. See the Brown Book
, entries for 15 and 16 August 1865. [Translator's note]
Without presenting any argument, Lucy Beckett claimed that the two above-mentioned episodes in Wolfram
represent Wagner's only sources for the swan scene in Parsifal
. See Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Cambridge 1981, pages 14-15. [Author's note]
These Sanskrit originals became known through the discovery of the so-called Gilgit-manuscript and they began to be published
in the 1930s. The part of the canon containing the episode of the Buddha and the goose
, was published by R.
Gnoli in The Gilgit Manuscript of the Sanghabhedavastu
, Serie Originale Roma, Rome 1977. [Quotation omitted] ... An analysis of the various Buddhist
traditions concerning Devadatta's many confrontations with the Buddha has been made by B. Mukherjee in Die Überlieferung der
Devadatta, dem Widersacher des Buddha, in den kanonischen Schriften
, Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft, Beiheft J, München 1966. [Author's note]
In her article Richard Wagner's Art in its relation to Buddhist Thought
, Dorothy W. Dauer briefly mentions the
element of the spear and Mára's weapon over Buddha's head (page 30) and in connection with this she gives an incomplete reference to Buddhacarita
Schmidt's translation Buddha's Leben, Asvaghosa's Buddhacaritam
, Hannover 1923 (reprinted Osnabrück 1972). This reference I find rather mystifying,
given that this motive, as mentioned above, does not appear in Buddhacarita
, nor does it, consequently, in Schmidt's translation. [Author's note]
The motive is found for example in the anonymous and undated text Apadanatthakatha
, a commentary to the first part of
the compilation of stories that is known as Apadana
. These stories tell of remarkable and heroic deeds performed by Buddhist
monks and nuns (Pali apadana
= Sanskrit avadana
). The events under the Bodhi-tree are described in the introduction to the commentary. [Pali
quotation omitted] ... The essence of this passage might be paraphrased as follows:
The wrathful Mára, unable to contain his surge of anger, cast his discus
towards the future Buddha. The weapon remained standing like a flowery canopy over the one who was deep in meditation on the various perfections. [Author's note]
Curt von Westernhagen, Richard Wagners Dresdener Bibliothek 1842 bis 1849
, Wiesbaden 1966, page 85. [Author's note]
Footnote 10: Der traurige Gott
, Zweite erg. Aufl., München 1980, page 221. [Author's
Obviously this is not a Buddhist
concept, since it is widely held that the Buddha denied the
existence of a soul or átman
. In the Mândukya Upanishad
existence is described in terms of four states: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and the
When one is fast asleep, bereft of dreams and desires, that is prâjña, the self in the third state. As the darkness of night drives away
the visible world, so does the dreamless sleep push aside the world of objects, external or internal. Experiences now collapse into one undifferentiated point of
consciousness, restful and blissful.Mândukya Upanishad, verse 5. [Translator's note]
In the Maháyána tradition the generic term bodhisattva
is normally used with the narrower meaning of
, where mahasattva
means great being
. In this narrower usage, which is clearly that intended by Suneson, the term
denotes one who has taken the vow to be reborn, no matter how many times this may be necessary, in order to attain the highest possible goal,
that of Complete and Perfect Buddhahood, for the benefit of all sentient beings. In this Maháyána sense of the bodhisattva-ideal, the concern of the bodhisattva is
with liberation (i.e. Erlösung
), not for himself alone but for all sentient beings. The bodhisattva develops great compassion (mahakaruna
his deeds and attitude are sealed with the perfection of wisdom (prajñápáramitá
). Suneson's description of the bodhisattva as one who postpones their
transition to Buddhahood is an inaccurate one, since the bodhisattva (in the Maháyána tradition to which Suneson is clearly referring), as described in most
western writings on Buddhism, postpones not their transition to Buddhahood but their transition into nirvana
; or to put it another way,
they scorn the lesser nirvanas which are the goal of non-Maháyána traditions, in order to work towards the higher goal of perfect Buddhahood and with it,
transition to the ultimate nirvana of the Buddhas. [Translator's note]
"Maháyána and non-Maháyána sources refer to a number of perfections (páramitá
) mastered by the bodhisattva as he
or she follows the long path to perfect Buddhahood. The most frequent list contains six: giving (dána
), morality (shila
), effort (virya
), meditative concentration (dhyána
) and wisdom (prajñá
). The perfection of wisdom is primary; it is
said to lead the other perfections as a man with eyes leads the blind." Maháyána Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Paul Williams, 1989.
(see note 14) notes that Eugène Burnouf
, who was Wagner's first point of contact with Buddhism, preferred an etymology in which
the term páramitá
was derived from páram
, meaning, the opposite bank or the further shore. Here, suggests Dayal, he had been misled by Tibetan
sources who had interpreted the term in this way. The derivation that Dayal prefers (page 166), however, is from the root parama
, meaning: highest, best,
most excellent or superior. The path of the bodhisattva, as it is described in later Buddhist texts, has ten stages; it is at the sixth stage that the bodhisattva
achieves the perfection of wisdom, which suggests that there was an earlier scheme which only described six stages, perhaps coordinated with the six perfections,
later replaced by a more extended description of the path which attempted to describe the progression of the advanced bodhisattva from the sixth perfection to
perfect Buddhahood. In the Maháyána tradition there is not one but several kinds of nirvana
; at the sixth stage of the path the fuel of
is burned out and so, if the bodhisattva had not taken the vow to follow the bodhisattva path to the ultimate goal, he or she could have entered
into a lesser nirvana at this stage. Having taken the vow of the bodhisattva, however, the one who follows that path will not enter into nirvana until they reach
the higher nirvana of perfect Buddhahood. Some texts describe, therefore, further perfections beyond the sixth stage of the path, although different schools of
Buddhism have different ideas about these higher reaches of the path. Some texts suggest that the advanced bodhisattva is already in a kind of nirvana, in which he
or she remains in the world but is no longer of the world. [Translator's note]
The standard reference work concerning the bodhisattva doctrine is by Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva
Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature
, London 1932 (reprinted Delhi 1970). The two terms karuná and prajñá are discussed on pages 178-181 and 236-248
respectively. [Author's note]
Concerning karuná, Dayal informs us:
No one word can convey an adequate idea of what karuná means. It is mentioned in an enormous number of passages in all the
principal treatises. It is perhaps the word that occurs most frequently in Maháyánist literature. According to the Sata-sáhasriká Prajñapáramitá, a
bodhisattva shows his karuná chiefly by resolving to suffer the torments and agonies of the dreadful purgatories during innumerable æons, if need be, so that he
may lead all beings to perfect Enlightenment. He desires Enlightenment first for all beings and not for himself. He is consumed with grief on account of the
sufferings of others, and does not care for his own happiness. He desires the good and welfare of the world. All his faults and sins are destroyed, when his heart
is full of karuná. He loves all beings, as a mother loves her only child. This famous simile sums up a bodhisattva's ideal of karuná.
The translation of prajñá
(or as Wissen
) is inaccurate; the word prajñá is used by Buddhists with a range of meanings, none of which exactly corresponds to
wisdom/Wissen. In most cases the meaning of prajñá seems to be closer to understanding, which is arrived at by analysis. This can be a practical kind of
understanding, such as might be acquired by a doctor or an engineer (Dayal comments,
but this original sense of prajñá was not adopted in systematic Buddhist
); it can also be a metaphysical understanding, resulting from deep and insightful thinking about the way things really are. In the latter sense,
prajñá means an understanding of the world, which at least in the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions is the result of analytic and conceptual thinking. The
perfection of wisdom, which might be what Wagner meant by
, is the wisdom of the advanced and compassionate bodhisattva, which goes
beyond the wisdom of the world. [Translator's note]
© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (applied new styles) --- Sun 26 May 2019 17:00 CET ---